I saw a news story this morning where the lead was that SnapChat had been hacked and people’s photos are being distributed. Here’s what you need to know:
1. What is Snapchat? Let’s start there. Snapchat is a messaging app that sends self-deleting messages. Just like Mission Impossible, this message will self-destruct in five seconds. Most people use it as a more benign messaging app. Since the messages automatically delete, there is no need to keep cleaning up your inbox. However, some people use it as a way of sneaking around parents, spouses, teachers, bosses, etc., since the messages cannot be (easily) recovered. There are ways to screenshot a Snapchat message, and there are even third party apps that can help log those messages. While Snapchat claims the messages are deleted from their servers once they are delivered, their legal terms and conditions state that any media delivered across their servers is their property. To be fair, those terms are often vague, so Snapchat probably isn’t compiling a database of photos.
2. Who got hacked? Snapchat themselves were not hacked. There are two services, SnapSave and SnapSaved (notice the ‘d’) that can save Snapchat messages. There are ways to screenshot messages, but because Snapchat messages delete themselves quickly, manually saving them is tricky. Automated apps help, but some of them, like SnapSave and SnapSaved, store those images not just on your phone, but on their servers.
3. Should you be concerned? That’s hard to say. If you have sent pictures or messages via Snapchat that you did not want others to see, and either you or your recipients used one of the SnapSave(d) apps, then your data may be compromised. It appears that the release of the hacked photos is a case of “hactivism,” where hackers break a system and release a dump of photos and data just do prove a point, in this case, that Snapchat may not be as secure as one may think. The initial hackers may not have any ill intent, but of course if someone else gets ahold of those messages, they could do whatever they want with them.
While I certainly do not endorse the actions of these hactivists, we ought to remember that much of what we do on our phones is monitored. Most of the time it is relatively benign. I placed an order for a pair of shoes a few months ago, and for the next few weeks, all I saw in ads on my phone were photos of the shoes that I had removed from my cart. Somehow that information got from my Amazon cart to advertisers. I don’t mind that; I’m sure that by the time it got to the web advertisers, most of my personal information that could identify me had been scrubbed out. Three things to keep in mind: first, use a bit of common sense and discretion when sending messages or posting online. Second, use sufficiently complex passwords and security questions. Third, have a backup plan in place if your data were to be compromised. ID Restoration through LifeLock is one of the benefits of your Protect Cell membership, and could certainly come in handy if your financial information were compromised. Of course, another option would be to remove Snapchat entirely, but whether you keep using or stop using Snapchat, don’t think that you’re invulnerable to a data breach.
I see more and more teenagers using Snapchat, and if you're a parent of a teenager with a smartphone, you need to be on the lookout for it. Snapchat is an app that can be used as a texting or messaging service. However, it has its pitaflls.
First and foremost, it uses cellular data. Years ago, Blackberry boasted that their BBM service was a cross-carrier app, so those with unlimited data and limited text could message each other witout worries that they would exceed their meager messaging bundles. Now the pendulum has swung the other way: we have unlimited messaging and limited data plans, so the need for a multiplatofrm, multicarrier messaging isn't as great. Texting through Snapchat shouldn't use much data, but the operative word here is "shouldn't." A few coworkers of mine burned through over 100 MB of data within a few hours of sending various pictures and texts via Snapchat. That's a tenth of a gigabyte. So if a few grown adults can burn a tenth of a gigablyte between the two of them, imagine what your teenager can do messaging multiple friends hundreds of times a day over the course of a month. (Hint: it adds up fast). If you experience a sudden surge of data usage that nobody on the family plan is fessing up to, look for Snapchat on your kids' phones.
Second, the big draw to Snapchat is that the messages are self-destructing. Send a message and a few seconds after the recipient opens it, it deletes itself. I am not really concerned about kids using Snapchat to circumvent parental supervision, that dance has been happening as long as parents have had teenagers. So I'm going to leave you as a parent to discern what level of trust and verification to hold your children to.
What bothers me is that teenagers already have a false sense of invincibility. Giving them a smartphone app that allows for rapidly self-deleting messages feeds into that just a little too much. It says right on the app description that while messages are deleted from your phone and Snapchat's server after a few seconds, a screen capture can preserve that message for posterity. Plus, one has to wonder in this day and age if what gets deleted really gets deleted. Do you really want your children learning that lesson the hard way? The first high-profile case that the evidence has been passed along via Snapchat will reveal how truly deleted (or not) those messages are. I suspect you don't want your children to be the guinea pigs here either.
Bottom line is that if my kids were old enough to have their own phones, I'd prefer they not use apps like Snapchat. If your kids already have it on their phones, it's up to you as a parent to decide what battles you want to fight, but at least you should know what the app is and what it can do. If you need a seperate app for messaging over data or wifi, say from an iPod touch to an Android, or for international travel, I recommend What'sApp Messenger.