Snapchat, the photo-sharing mobile application that initially had a reputation for facilitating “safe” sexting due to the timed deletion of sent images, has been a prominent subject in both technological and legal news. From warnings to users that recipients could screenshot and save the photographs to arrests of teachers engaging in racy snap exchanges with their minor students, Snapchat is no stranger to controversy. Now, though, users have yet another reason to snap carefully: Snapchat recently announced that it has and will turn over unopened snaps to law enforcement officials. Although opened snaps are deleted from Snapchat’s Google-hosted cloud service once the recipient opens them, and stories are deleted after twenty-four hours of being posted, unopened snaps remain on the company’s server and can be manually retrieved. Only two people are able to manually retrieve these snaps: cofounder and CTO Bobby Murphy and Micah Schaffer, the head of trust and safety. Schaffer stated that Snapchat, which transmits 350 million snaps daily, has turned over around twelve unopened snaps to police since May 2013. He explained that under the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (codified at 18 U.S.C. §§ 2510–2522), Snapchat is “[obliged] to produce the snaps to the requesting law enforcement agency.” Snapchat emphasized that law enforcement would need to have a warrant to view the desired snaps, but noted that the company could be legally compelled to retain stories and unopened snaps on their server past their expiration dates while law enforcement worked to obtain a warrant. ABC News quoted Internet privacy and social media lawyer Bradley Shear as saying, “The fact that the government needs to go the warrant route is a very positive thing for Snapchat users’ privacy. The feds usually ask for a subpoena over a warrant, since it has a much lower level of requirement.”

Snapchat’s Privacy Policy reads that snap information can be shared “[i]n response to legal process or a request for information if we believe disclosure is in accordance with any applicable law, rule, or regulation, or as otherwise required by any applicable law, rule or regulation” as well as “In order to investigate or remedy potential violations of our user agreements or policies, or to protect the rights, property and safety of Snapchat, our users or others.”

So, Snappers, snap carefully. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that you’re smarter than this woman because you’re sending that cute photo of you robbing a convenience store via a self-destructing medium rather than posting the incriminating evidence on Instagram.

–Mary Fletcher King

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2 Responses to Snapchat: Handing Over Unopened Snaps to Police

  1. Sonal says:

    Wonderful post! I’m surprised snapchat hasn’t put an expiration date on unopened snapchats. That would save them from any negative whiplash from users when it comes time for an issued warrant. Users should be smart enough not to snapchat self-incriminating evidence, but if they aren’t – I’m sure snapchat doesn’t want to have to deal with it.

  2. Amanda says:

    Really interesting (and great links)! I feel like snapchat had to comply, and I doubt it will change how its users’ behaviors. Users–teens especially–seem to think snapchats are foolproof. It sounds like they should think again!