Snapchat Gives Dozen Snaps To Feds
October 15, 2013

Snapchat Admits To Giving Feds About A Dozen ‘Snaps’

Michael Harper for - Your Universe Online

Snapchat’s head of “Trust and Safety” has written a blog post explaining who can see users’ photos, how long these photos are stored on their servers, and how they handle formal requests for user data from law enforcement.

According to Snapchat's Micah Schaffer, only two of the company's employees have access to the tool used to view pictures which have yet to be received. Once these pictures reach their intended recipient, however, they’re removed from the main servers and are no longer stored. Furthermore, Schaffer says the only reason they keep “unopened” pictures on the servers is simply so they can deliver them from one user to another.

Privacy remains a particularly hot-button issue amidst news of NSA surveillance and Google’s new advertising program which will essentially turn Google+ users into unpaid spokespeople for third-party advertisers.

Snapchat is a photo and video sharing app which allows users to share photographs with only those people they choose, and only for the amount of time they choose. If the recipient doesn’t open the “snap” within the predetermined amount of time, the picture disappears from the servers forever. When the app first launched, it was widely regarded as an app for teenagers to share nude pictures without fear of having them leaked online.

Schaffer says the Snapchat servers are hosted on Google’s App Engine. This is where all unopened snaps are stored until a recipient accesses them. An unopened snap has an expiration life of 30 days and, if it isn’t opened by that time, it is deleted from the servers permanently.

“Is Snapchat capable of retrieving unopened Snaps from the datastore? Yes—if we couldn’t retrieve Snaps from the datastore, we wouldn’t be able to deliver them to their recipients desired by the sender," writes Schaffer in his blog post.

“Do we manually retrieve and look at Snaps under ordinary circumstances? No. The ordinary process of sending Snaps to their recipient(s) is automated.”

Schaffer then goes on to explain the extraordinary circumstances by which the company would access an unopened snap. Snapchat adheres to the same federal laws as other electronic companies, namely the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA). Under this law, companies are obliged to hand over certain information in the presence of a warrant. As a newer service which serves a younger audience, Schaffer says Snapchat has only had to comply with “about a dozen” of these requests since May.

Schaffer also says that while they do have the ability to access unopened snaps, there are only two people in the company who are capable of doing so, himself and co-founder Bobby Murphy who coded the tool used to retrieve unopened pictures.

Earlier this month Snapchat unveiled “Stories,” a feature which allows users to stitch together photographs and videos into a longer storyline. These pictures are available for 24 hours, and users can see everyone who accessed these snaps. Schaffer says because these stories are available for 24 hours, they also live on the servers for the same time. However, unlike snaps, stories are only stored for 24 hours and are immediately deleted afterwards.

Snapchat has buttoned up their security after a flaw in their system was exploited last December. Though video snaps were no longer viewable by the users after a certain period of time, it was discovered that these videos were stored on iPhones deep within the app’s file folders. By downloading a free file browser from the App Store, users could dig into this folder and recover older videos.