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Has this scenario ever happened to you?
“Dude, we’re robbing a bank, why are you taking photos?”
“No bro, it’s cool. I’m just sending a Snapchat to my girlfriend.”
Well, “bro” as a matter of fact, it’s not cool. Especially if the police get to that snap before she opens it.
In world where the NSA might have a file on each of us, Facebook avoids questions about permanently deleting content, and we accept that the TSA sees more of us than we would like, very few people would be shocked and alarmed to hear that Snapchat saves every single snap sent. Fear not Americans, when snaps are deleted on your phone, they are also deleted from the Snapchat servers.
According to a company blog post, the snaps are stored unopened and then deleted in an automated system. However, because any unopened snap stays on the servers, Snapchat’s developers are obligated to turn them over to the police upon request, courtesy of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act.
The ECPA has a similar history to other tech-related laws. It was drafted in 1986, when email was rare and social networking was non-existent. When this law was passed, no one even dreamed about the abilities that our cell phones have today – people weren’t even texting!
In March of this year a few senators introduced potential updates to the horribly outdated law. The changes targeted the portion that said police could access any email without a warrant that had either been opened or saved for more than 180 days. Remember, this law was created before we lived in a world where inboxes stuffed with hundreds of emails were commonplace. Furthermore, email is only the tip of the iceberg for electronic communication now because how we reach out to each other changes by year and by month. Laws can’t update fast enough to match technology’s evolution.
The vast majority of snappers need not worry. More than 350 million snaps are sent a day, and they’ve only received about a dozen requests from the police.
Snapchat’s reputation quickly plummeted as its popularity grew. What started as a fun app for weird faces became a tool for sending photos that HR would not approve of. For each new app or service that claims to retrieve snaps, new panic arises among users who worry that their dirty secrets will get discovered. Meanwhile, Snapchat developers are trying their hardest to bring their brand back to its roots of innocent photo sharing with friends.
While the blog post explaining the transparency of snaps and legal obligations to the police was meant to be a positive PR move, the headlines are focusing on taking pictures while committing crimes and running from the cops. That’s hardly the type of wholesome, family-friendly content Snapchat’s developers intended.
Unfortunately, the blog post is tainted by audience perception. Rather than appreciate the transparency of deleted snaps, we only notice the police involvement. Instead of letting our kids download the app, we think about all the photos of illegal activity shared. This is a challenge that faces most brands that are trying to shake off a bad reputation. Rebranding is a marathon, not a sprint.
Next time I hold up a liquor store, remind me to avoid sending snaps of the terrified cashier to all of my contacts. Lesson learned.