Snapchat messages are not nearly as ephemeral as the company promised, the Federal Trade Commission alleged in an administrative lawsuit against the app maker on Thursday.
Simultaneously filed and settled, the suit accuses Snapchat of misleading its users—who transmit about 350 million photos and videos daily—by claiming unequivocally that the messages “disappear forever.”
The FTC said there are actually several easy ways to save the messages, and that Snapchat knew it.
The Venice, Calif.-based startup also made allegedly false statements about what it did with its users’ personal information, according to the FTC, which accused the company of violating Section 5 of the FTC Act barring deceptive business practices.
“If there’s one message” from the case, Christopher Olsen, assistant director of the FTC’s division of privacy and identity protection, said during a conference call with reporters, it’s that “if you make promises about privacy, you must honor those promises.”
The settlement bars Snapchat from misrepresenting its privacy policies and requires the company to implement “a comprehensive privacy program” that will be independently monitored for the next 20 years. By law, the agency can’t impose monetary penalties for initial violations of the FTC Act, although if Snapchat violates the terms of the settlement, it can be held liable for up to $16,000 per violation per day.
In its complaint, the FTC said Snapchat wrongly informed its users that their messages would vanish, quoting the company’s FAQ: “Is there any way to view an image after the time has expired? No, snaps disappear after the timer runs out.”
According to the FTC, “several methods exist by which a recipient can use tools outside of the application to save both photo and video messages, allowing the recipient to access and view the photos or videos indefinitely.” Furthermore, the FTC said, a researcher warned Snapchat in 2012 about potential security flaws and, by spring 2013, several third-party developers released apps to save and view Snapchat messages indefinitely.
In addition, the FTC said, Snapchat promised that if someone took a screenshot of a message, “the sender will be notified immediately.” But the FTC found that “recipients can easily circumvent Snapchat’s screenshot detection mechanism.”
The FTC faulted Snapchat for deceiving consumers about the amount of personal data it collected and what it did with the information. Until February 2013, Snapchat told people its app didn’t “ ‘ask for, track or access any location-specific information’ when, in fact, it was transmitting geolocation information to its analytics provider,” according to a FTC blog by Bureau of Consumer Protection senior attorney Lesley Fair.
As part of its “Find Friends” feature, Snapchat collected the names and telephone numbers of all contacts in the user’s address book without notifying users. The FTC said Snapchat’s “failure to secure its Find Friends feature resulted in a security breach that enabled attackers to compile a database of 4.6 million Snapchat usernames and phone numbers.”
Olsen said that Snapchat users were likely attracted to the site based on its privacy claims and the promise that their messages would disappear. “Their users are concerned about privacy,” Olsen said. “We view this as a major action.”