Snapchat Admits What We Already Knew: It Doesn’t Work (+ Snapchat Alternatives That Do)

When Snapchat, the popular mobile messaging service touted as a way to send messages that will “disappear forever,” turned down a reported $3 billion acquisition offer from Facebook, I remarked to many friends and a few software developers that it was a horrendous decision. I believed that $3 billion or anything close to that dollar amount was an extreme overvaluation of a company that would find it difficult to monetize an application that could be, and has been, easily replicated. However, my assessment of Snapchat’s worth was driven by more than just skepticism about its future profitability. I also had a dim view of its present value for one simple reason: their application does not do what they claim it does. And Snapchat finally admitted as much on Thursday in its agreement with the FTC to settle charges that the company deceived its users about the app’s functionality and its privacy policy.

In this settlement, Snapchat agreed to no longer market its application by representing that messages sent through its service disappear after a sender-defined 1 to 10 seconds of viewing. It will no longer do so because the truth is that they often don’t disappear and, given that many Snapchat users have treated the service as a way to inoculate the dangers of sexting, many unfortunate teenagers have had to learn this truth the hard way.

However, the fact that snapchats aren’t as private as the company claims really should not surprise anyone as a quick perusal of the original complaint makes it clear that many of the grounds for which the FTC brought charges were actually widely known of by both users and Snapchat. The FTC points out that both the Apple App Store and the Google Play store contain plenty of free applications, such as Snapbox, that you can use to save any snapchats received by simply logging in with your Snapchat credentials. Moreover, it was a year ago this month that a Utah-based data firm showed that any user with a modicum of computer prowess (or with at least a strong enough will to search Google for how to save snapchats) snapchat-undeleteFileTree-Hickman-KSLTVscreenshotcould retrieve any snapchat sent to their phone because the snapchat’s “disappearing” act occurred by merely moving the received message to a trash bin similar to how you would do so on a desktop computer.

Thus, the crux of the problem with Snapchat for me is not that I fell prey to the illusion that snapchats actually disappeared forever, but instead that the company persisted to make promises of user privacy and information security that it knew it was not keeping. Not even the recent change to their application’s description on the Apple and Google app stores can cover all the gaffes in their application’s operation.

Snapchat App Description Before & After FTC Settlement

Moving beyond the glaring fact that the entire premise of their application was flawed, Snapchat also misled users about what information it collected and how this information was stored and shared. Users were misled about what information it collected because Snapchat collected all iOS users’ contacts information from their address books without notice or consent even though Snapchat’s privacy policy stated that it will only collect a user’s email, phone number, and Facebook ID for purpose of finding friends. Snapchat then failed to adequately store this information securely on its servers and this failure allowed hackers to breach its systems to obtain 4.6 million Snapchat usernames and phone numbers, which, as the FTC points out, can be used to deliver spam, phishing attacks, and other unsolicited communications to a user’s mobile telephone.

Finally, Snapchat even failed to verify phone numbers during the application’s registration process, leading many users to complain that they had been unwittingly sending private snapchats to complete strangers who registered with phone numbers that did not belong to them.

In total, Snapchat has proven that it is not the “ephemeral” messaging application it marketed itself to be. The company knew of its application’s vulnerabilities and deficiencies and, despite the substantial stake it had in remaining atop the totem pole for privacy-oriented messaging applications, they continued to make claims that belied this knowledge, thereby violating the trust required for people to place faith in using these types of applications. By doing so, they have blasted wide open the door for its lesser-known competitors, and, although the sanctions levied upon Snapchat by the FTC in the settlement are meager to say the least, I imagine that the once $3 billion offer from Facebook is looking mighty fine now.

Oh, and speaking of those lesser-known competitors of Snapchat, if you are looking for a new application that promises self-destructing messages, the following applications are effective replacements for Snapchat:

  • Wickr: If I were to use any private communications application, Wickr would be it. It’s well-designed, features military-grade encryption that even the app’s developers say they cannot decrypt, and it allows users (who are not required to enter their personal information to sign-up) to securely send messages that can be chosen to vaporize after a set time or not. Available on iOS and Android.
  • Telegram: Operating on a decentralized infrastructure with data centers all across the globe, not only does Telegram make it more unlikely that a government will be able to subpoena (or snoop on) your messaging records, but Telegram also offers end-to-end encryption of media messages up to 1GB in size and text messages of any length that can be set to self-destruct after a certain period of time. Available on iOS and Android.
  • Cyberdust: Providing an interface that feels more like email than mobile-to-mobile messaging, messages sent through Cyberdust are revealed one word at a time as the recipient scrolls through the message. Upon reaching the end of the message, it is immediately deleted. I tried it & hated it, but it is probably the most effective of the alternatives in ensuring that recipients do not later distribute screenshots of your messages. Available on iOS and coming soon to Android.
AJ Afkari | techlawgic

A.J. Afkari is a Los Angeles attorney who specializes in legal matters related to the Internet, technology, and all things intertwined. He received his B.A. from UCLA, his J.D. from USC, and his A.J. from his mother.

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