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Snapchat flaw means expired photos don't 'disappear forever'

Snapchat, the worst thing ever, or just an amusing app?


Snapchat has been described in numerous hand-wringing ways: it promotes teen sexting, it's pornographic, it's an adultery app and it can even secure communications between criminals and terrorists. In short, it's bad for you.

At base it is simpler than all that: It's a smartphone app that takes pictures or video and then sends them to a recipient – the twist being the sendee can set an expiry, a time-limit under which it can be viewed so that no more than 10 seconds after it arrives the Snap will "disappear forever." That's what the description of the software says in Apple's App Store, and in Google's Play store.

Only now, the "forever" part of the equation is under siege.

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A Utah university student named Richard Hickman has discovered a way to pull those photos off your Android phone with simple free tools (see here). So, let's say your phone is full of "vanished" Snaps detailing a criminal conspiracy, and that device fell into the hands of the police, they could very easily recover your illicit communications. He's working on a way to do this to an iPhone as well.

Many of Snapchat's critics (and hoo-boy, does it have critics) are likely crowing "I told you so!" to anyone who will listen. But, there's decent evidence that this latest scandal won't matter one iota to its users.

First, Snapchat has never been airtight: Using your phone to screenshot a Snap didn't erase it, it just sent a notification back to the sendee that you violated the Snapchat social compact. You could have also taken a picture of the Snap with another camera... no notification then. There are other methods too.

Also, "gone forever" was probably not the only value-add. A Bloomberg Businessweek article by Felix Gillette described the interactions on Snapchat as much less about security and way more about fun:

Opening a Snapchat, she says, feels like unwrapping a present. You never know what you're going to get. Since the messages quickly disappear, there's no pressure to look cool. People send pictures of themselves making ridiculous faces, smiling like maniacs, sticking out their tongues, giving the stink-eye, sprouting feathers (you can doodle on Snapchat pictures.)"

The other signature feature was platform interoperability: WhatsApp, a free chat service, has been topping app download charts for months because just like Snapchat, no matter what kind of phone you have (iPhone, Android device, even a BlackBerry), you can send free messages back and forth using the software. No pricey SMS, no proprietary BBM or iMessage.

This all adds up to a supremely popular app that has frequently found itself among the top 10 downloads on iTunes and has been downloaded more than five million times on Android.

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Indeed, Snapchat recently claimed that 150 million photos a day were moving across its networks. Compare that to less-scary Facebook-owned Instagram's 40 million a day habit and Snapchat seems unlikely to be derailed by a little thing like the complete fraudulence of its central security claim.

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About the Author
Technology reporter

Shane Dingman is The Globe and Mail's technology reporter. He covers BlackBerry, Shopify and rising Canadian tech companies in Waterloo, Ont., Toronto and beyond. More


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