The disappearing act of messages on Snapchat, the mobile messaging service, has not been as foolproof as the company promised.
Snapchat agreed earlier this month to settle charges with the Federal Trade Commission that the company was deceiving users about the ephemeral nature of the photos and video messages sent through its service.
In marketing the service, Snapchat has said that its messages “disappear forever.” But in its complaint, the commission said the messages, often called snaps, could be saved in several ways. The commission said that users could save a message by using a third-party app, for example, or employ simple workarounds that allow users to take a screenshot of messages without detection.
The complaint also said Snapchat transmitted users’ location information and collected sensitive data like address book contacts, despite its saying that it did not collect such information. The commission said the policies allowed security researchers to compile a database of 4.6 million user names and phone numbers during a recent security breach.
“If a company markets privacy and security as key selling points in pitching its service to consumers, it is critical that it keep those promises,” said Edith Ramirez, the chairwoman for the Federal Trade Commission. “Any company that makes misrepresentations to consumers about its privacy and security practices risks FTC action.”
Under the terms of the settlement, Snapchat will be prohibited from misrepresenting how it maintains the privacy and confidentially of user information. The company will also be required to start a wide-ranging privacy program that will be independently monitored for 20 years. Fines could ensue if the company does not comply with the agreement.
“While we were focused on building, some things didn’t get the attention they could have,” the company said.
Snapchat warns users about potential data collection in its privacy statement. The company says: “There may be ways to access messages while still in temporary storage on recipients’ devices or, forensically, even after they are deleted. You should not use Snapchat to send messages if you want to be certain that the recipient cannot keep a copy.”
The company does not reveal the number of people using its service, but says it now shuttles more than 700 million messages back and forth to users each day.
Snapchat is one of many tech startups that promise varying degrees of privacy or, in some cases, anonymity to its users. Mobile applications like Whisper, Secret, Confide and a number of others also assure their users that the content they share and sometimes even their identities are secure.