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Snapchat Settles with FTC over Misleading Privacy Claims
Snapchat Settles with FTC over Misleading Privacy Claims

By Seth Fitzgerald
May 8, 2014 4:31PM

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If Snapchat violates terms of the FTC settlement, the civil penalty could be as much as $16,000 for each violation, amounting to millions of dollars. Under the settlement, Snapchat is barred from misrepresenting how it maintains users' privacy. Snapchat also must put in place a privacy program that will be independently monitored for 20 years.
 



Snapchat has reached a settlement with the Federal Trade Commission over misleading privacy claims, which had suggested that messages, photos and videos sent through the app could not be stored. The main attraction to Snapchat since it was first released has been the way messages are received and subsequently destroyed after a few seconds. Many users had interpreted this feature to mean that Snapchat messages go away forever, but the FTC found that was not the case.

Snapchat has said in its marketing that messages sent through the app "disappear forever." But the FTC showed more than one way that the disappearing messages could actually be saved without a sender being notified. One of Snapchat's features tells senders if a recipient takes a screen shot of a message, but that notification service doesn't work all the time, the FTC said. And some third-party apps can be used to save the messages.

Not an Admission

Snapchat did not admit to any wrongdoing in its settlement with the FTC, and no fines were levied. Instead, Snapchat will only be forced to pay a fine if it violates terms of the settlement. At that point, the civil penalty could be as much as $16,000 for each violation, amounting to millions of dollars in total. Under the settlement, Snapchat is barred from misrepresenting how it maintains users' privacy. The company also will be required to put in place a privacy program that will be independently monitored for 20 years.

The privacy concerns surrounding Snapchat are not new either. Earlier this year, many people criticized the company after a security breach left 4.6 million phone numbers and usernames exposed.

That breach also put Snapchat's "Find Friends" feature into the spotlight. Find Friends allowed the app to search through a phone's address book in order to find people in it who were also signed up for the applications. As a result, there was a massive amount of data collected by the app that the FTC says the company did not secure well enough. Had Snapchat more effectively secured the data, a significant security breach may have been avoided.

Ineffective Features

The FTC's primary set of complaints was directed at Snapchat's privacy features, which are frequently ineffective. Based upon its investigation, the FTC found that users on a phone running iOS 6 or below are able to get around the app's screenshot detection feature.

Along with users being able to secretly take screenshots of messages, video chats were also not erased from a phone once they no longer appeared in the graphical interface of the app. Even though all messages, whether they be photos, texts, or videos could "self-destruct," they did not actually disappear. Instead, the FTC says that videos ended up being stored in a device's file directory without any sort of encryption.

With the messages in a phone's directory, users could then access the videos with ease, even though they were no longer supposed to be accessible. As a result, it appeared as though some of Snapchat's seemingly beneficial features did not actually protect user privacy.
 

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