Does Snapchat offer safe sexting from smartphones, or a false sense of security?

Filed Under: Android, Featured, iOS, Mobile, Privacy, Social networks

Millions of teenagers have adopted a smartphone app which has been touted as a way of safely "sexting" and sharing naked pictures. But is it really a safe way to share intimate photographs of yourself?

Snapchat website

Snapchat, which is available for both iPhone and Android devices, describes how senders can control how long a message or picture can be seen for, before it expires after a maximum of 10 seconds:

Snapchat is the fastest way to share a moment with friends.

You control how long your friends can view your message –
simply set the timer up to ten seconds and send.

They’ll have that long to view your message and then it disappears forever. We’ll let you know if they take a screenshot!

Snapchat timerIt sounds like a neat solution, if the picture is only visible for 10 seconds - that reduces the opportunity for others to forward it around the school campus, or post it for all to see on Facebook.

But the truth is that anyone can take a screenshot of their device (if they are nimble fingered enough) and create their own copy of the image.

The Snapchat app says it will tell you if someone takes a screenshot, but what action are you going to take if you share a photo in confidence, only to discover that someone has chosen to keep a permanent record?

Furthermore, there are "how-to" guidelines online explaining how jailbroken iPhones can subvert Snapchat, and take snapshots without informing the image's sender.

A less high-tech method to grab the image is to simply take a photograph of the phone that has just received the nude photo. And then there's no way the Snapchat app can tell you if that's happened.

Some experts in the field of child safety online are clearly concerned that young people and children might be fooled into thinking that Snapchat is a safe way to share nude and inappropriate photographs of themselves.

Snapchat's privacy policy even admits that it can't actually promise any naked photos you send through the app will be only available for ten seconds.

"Although we attempt to delete image data as soon as possible after the message is transmitted, we cannot guarantee that the message contents will be deleted in every case. For example, users may take a picture of the message contents with another imaging device or capture a screenshot of the message contents on the device screen. Consequently, we are not able to guarantee that your messaging data will be deleted in all instances. Messages, therefore, are sent at the risk of the user."

Snapchat, which has received a 12+ rating from Apple for "Infrequent/Mild Sexual Content or Nudity", is already wildly popular. The firm's co-founder Evan Spiegel told TechCrunch that as of October 29th, users had shared over 1 billion photos ("snaps") on the iOS application.

As of today, Snapchat was No. 2 in the list of top free photography apps, just after YouTube, and ahead of Instagram.

Snapchat chart position

It's not likely that young people are going to stop sharing intimate photos of themselves over the internet anytime soon.

And the consequences can be disturbing, with parasite porn sites stealing and spreading images and videos of young people, and tragic tales of victims like Amanda Todd, who was bullied so badly over images of her that were shared over the net that she commited suicide,

Young people who adopt Snapchat shouldn't fall into a false sense of security that it's somehow a safe way to share naked pictures with their friends.

My advice? Stop taking naked photos of yourself. If someone is really interested in what you look like naked, they're either a bit of a pervert or should be prepared to wait a few years until you're both old enough to hook up legally and consensually in the privacy of a bedroom.

Sharing a naked photo of yourself with someone via the internet is putting yourself at dangerous risk of embarrassment, humiliation or serious bullying.

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21 Responses to Does Snapchat offer safe sexting from smartphones, or a false sense of security?

  1. Chris · 665 days ago

    Presumably the photos go through snapchat's servers right? Seems like it would be very easy for someone at snapchat to have the server archive images and since this is specifically designed for sending nude photos they'll very quickly have a massive collection of home made inappropriate imagery, some of which will be undoubtedly underage. Sounds like using this app could be quite a risk!

    • Guido Faulkes · 664 days ago

      > Presumably the photos go through snapchat's servers right? Seems like it would be very easy for someone at snapchat to have the server archive images

      Each and every telco / IT service is hooked up to the USA's NSA via secret room optic fiber links. Go figure.

  2. why are children and young teens so obsessed with sending naked pictures of themselves any way - we have had polaroids for years but I don't recall school children taking naked pictures and sharing them? why is this a thing? what has happened to sexualise the lives of children so much. This app is scary for more than the obvious reasons you list, as it seems to assume that youngsters will be sending naked pics and that that is a normal and acceptable thing to do - I'm not a prude (maybe I am!) but if you want someone to see you naked I suggest you get together sometime.....when you are old enough!

    • GSystems · 648 days ago

      This is similar to children showing eachother their body parts. In addition, we're not talking about seven and eight year olds doing this, we're talking about teenagers...meaning very young adults who are curious about themselves and their sexuality... Thus, if "sexting" didn't exist, these teens would simply meet and show eachother their "goodies"...

      To me, this sexting deal may be partly responsible for lessening teen pregnancy...
      http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/...

      I still find it preposterous that adult pornography has such a premium... If naked people were shown on OTA broadcasts, we would probably have less rapes, etc. in our society. ..

    • Emma · 639 days ago

      Don't believe everything you read. This "trend" is way overhyped for pageviews!

  3. David Pottage · 665 days ago

    In an ideal world teenagers would not sext. They would also keep the sabbath holy and not engage in fornication unless joined in wedlock.

    Seeing as we don't live in a perfect world, and teenagers have raging hormones that motivate them to sext (and worse), I think snapchat is a useful tool to mitigate the risks of unwanted photos falling into the wrong hands.

    As a security researcher, it is easy to find loopholes in the protection that snapchat offers. Of course someone can take screenshots with a jailbroken phone, (or external camera), I dare say you could extract pictures from a packet capture or memory dump of the app as well, however this all misses the point:

    Does the sender trust the recipient?

    If the recipient can be trusted, then all the technical risks above are irrelevant. You only need to worry about the recipient being foolish or forgetful, or a malicious third party getting hold of the pictures.

    If nude images are sent via normal MMS picture messaging or email then it is very easy to forward them. They also stay in the recipient's inbox forever and could be accessed later if the phone is lost or stolen. Snapchat mitigates both of these risks, as such it is far better even than sharing hard copy photos.

    • Nigel · 665 days ago

      "Does the sender trust the recipient?"

      So, it's a judgment call on the part of the sender? In other words, "In the judgment of the kind of person who thinks sending nude photos of him/herself is a smart move, can the recipient be trusted?"

      I'll stick with Graham's advice, thanks. It seems to me that if I've somehow managed to persuade myself that sending photos of myself in my birthday suit is a good idea, then I'd say that my judgment about whom I can trust is probably out of whack in the first place.

  4. I would not recommend anyone using an application like this with todays security issues. It seems to me people are unaware of what may happen in the event of someone obtaining their details. May be what is required is a better policing force on the net to prevent tradegies that can and usually occur. So if in doubt don't use the app.

    • GSystems · 648 days ago

      There are enough police... It is the increase of police that causes mischief...not the decrease...

      Stop having the government make all of your decisions...they obviously don't make great ones, unless you were actually for bombing the middle east and killing people over, well, nothing (See: Iraq)...

      What we need are LESS laws...

      Such as NOT locking up or fining people who CHOOSE to send a naked picture.

      As Dave Chappelle said, "How old is fifteen really?"

      Old enough to go to prison for Life for murder...yet young enough not to know how to make a judgment on who they want to send a nude photo to? lol

      Don't you see the craziness in that?

  5. yellowroselady · 665 days ago

    This sounds like a ploy initiated by the Justice Department, Child Pornography Task Forces and the PRIVATE PRISON INDUSTRY to "drum up business." This scam should be sent to every household on the planet with a request to get laws passed AGAINST this type of apps. Think I'm kidding....I'm not! When will our society recognize what is going on and say.....enough?

    Now, for those hormonal teens who "absolutely must" look at each other nude....maybe establish nude "teen" colonies like the adult ones. That would possibly keep some kids out of prison but create another situation. Some teen boys would drool themselves into dehydration and need to be treated by paramedics!

    Vicki Henry
    Women Against Registry dot com

    • GSystems · 648 days ago

      lol ... That's a great idea... Make the age, say, 16 and let that be that... Having someone wait eighteen years to see another person naked is absolutely preposterous...

  6. ShellyStow · 665 days ago

    This appears to be more of the hypocrisy with which we inundate children and youth today about everything connected with sex and sexuality.

    Girls--boys also, but primarily girls--are sexualized in commercials to sell everything from automobiles to toothpaste, yet when they receive the message and act on it, they risk misdemeanor or criminal charges that will land them on the sex offender registry.

    Our government hands out birth control to children as young as grade six, but when they use it with a partner younger than themselves, they risk being charged as a sex offender, and when they use it with an older partner, he or she is charged and put on the registry.

    And now, once again, the pattern is repeating. Our laws say, sexting is illegal. Youth are charged with distributing child pornography for sending images of an uncovered breast or nude buttocks. They are charged and registered as sex offenders for sending sexually explicit text to each other. In spite of the potential danger of sexual exploitation, the potential of running afoul of our sex offense laws are a much greater risk for youth. And now comes someone who sees a way to make a buck, saying, well, yeah, there's danger involved, but this makes it safer. We are teaching our children and teens that hypocrisy permeates everything and that there is always a way to circumvent the law and circumvent appropriate behavior--until they are busted and registered as sex offenders, often for life, and all options are then brought to an immediate halt.

    Our kids deserve better from us.

    • GSystems · 648 days ago

      I'm with you, but, in my opinion, WE deserve better from us...

      The laws all revolve around this rare boogey-man (such as a child molester) that we are all then treated as before we do anything.

      WE are the ones being treated as illiterates. The children are used only as a shield. Truly, who would be against stopping some mentally disturbed man from seeing an innocent teenager's body?

      Indeed, the "innocent teenager" with an eighth grade education wouldn't let that happen, but government uses that straw-girl to put more trip-wires in the road for you...

  7. B L Bean · 665 days ago

    This is a truly worrying practice , I have a friend whose 13 YO daughter sent a below the waist shot to a supposed friend (male ) and it went viral and spread like wildfire to every school in the district band beyond. Then results were that police got involved , some charges laid and a very big lot of unhappy parents and kids were involved . The girl in question became really depressed , and under advice was lut on self harm watch- fortunately she has now recovered somewhat but s there are still reprcussions happening.
    Best advice - DON'T DO IT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! your "friends " are the ones most likely to let you down and share what was supposed to be a one on one thing.

  8. Remember ex Congressman Wiener .... There is no anonymity on the internet.

  9. Alex · 651 days ago

    "If someone is really interested in what you look like naked, they’re either a bit of a pervert or should be prepared to wait a few years until you’re both old enough to hook up legally and consensually in the privacy of a bedroom."

    This is the type of advice that is never followed and is generally unhelpful. Please tell me how our Abstinence Only sex education has turned out? This is the same thing.

    These kids are going to send naked pictures to each other. Our laws need to be updated so a 17 year old and an 18 year old couple don't get put on sex offender registries, and we need to find ways to contain this phenomenon. You're not going to stop it. Do you even remember what it was like to be a horny teenager?

    • I can't ever remember feeling so hormonally volcanic that I wanted to send someone a naked photo of myself..

      Was happy to try it out with close female friends in the privacy of a bedroom, but get the polaroid camera out? No way..

  10. Sean · 650 days ago

    This article seems to imply that the 1 billion users are all young teenagers "sexting" one another. A bold assumption considering the author hasn't provided a single statistic of what percentage of users are teens and what percentage of snaps are sexual in nature.

    I'm part of a demographic of young adults that use social media such as snapchat consistently and I can truthfully say I've never sent a "Sext" in my life. My friends and I heard of snapchat from its notoriety as a sexting tool and we chose to download it. We use it to send pictures of goofy faces, snap shot where we are, have conversations using facial expressions, and NOT to sext.

    I'm not saying that underage kids sending naked pictures to each other isn't a bad thing. I'm simply pointing out that the basis of this article is misleading readers to believe that snapchat is primarily for young teens to sext each other. Snapchat isn't about teens and sex. Everyone just likes to make it seem that way because it makes it more interesting.

  11. This is an interesting app and thanks to Gabfest for bringing this to my attention. In a way, it can be thought of a preemptive online reputation management tool that stops images from becoming a major problem.

  12. SusanHolmes · 310 days ago

    sexting is the dumbest thing ever as people lose their phones all the time so you have no idea who may end up with your pics.

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About the author

Graham Cluley runs his own award-winning computer security blog, and is a veteran of the anti-virus industry having worked for a number of security companies since the early 1990s. Now an independent security analyst, he regularly makes media appearances and gives computer security presentations. Send Graham an email, subscribe to his updates on Facebook, follow him on Twitter and App.net, and circle him on Google Plus for regular updates.