Snapchat snafu serves as an important reminder

Snapchat logoToday, many Snapchat users are no doubt gnawing their nails over the clothing-sparse selfies and booze-infused party pics they shared on assumptions of privacy. They’re wondering whether insulting memes and embarrassing explanations will result.

They’re probably kicking themselves over believing Snapchat was different from other social sites, and kicking themselves again for ignoring the reality of digital secrecy — that there really is no such thing.

On Thursday, Snapchat, the mobile messaging service that distinguished itself by guaranteeing all of its clients’ sharing was time-limited and disposable, agreed to settle Federal Communications Commission charges that it could not deliver on that guarantee. The settlement comes despite insinuations and accusations that the guarantee lacked legitimacy from the start.

As punishment, Snapchat must restate its privacy goals and live up to them while under federal surveillance for the next 10 years. No monetary penalty was announced, but in our fast-moving digital world the surveillance period is tantamount to living with a parole officer for two lifetimes, and trying to sneak past the guard could invite a fatal smack in the wallet.

Snapchat apologized in brief on its blog, alleging that some of the FTC’s charges were addressed well before Thursday’s announcement and concluding its mea culpa by saying, “We are devoted to promoting user privacy and giving Snapchatters control over how and with whom they communicate. That’s something we’ve always taken seriously and always will.”

But promises are made to be broken, and a tech startup’s erstwhile intent lacks armor against those who merely feign concern for anyone’s social well-being. The Snapchat snafu thus serves as yet another piquant reminder that a person’s secrets are best protected by their owners and not by anyone who’s capable of putting a dollar value on indiscretion.

And so, the reminders go out again, to journalists and non-journalists alike:

  • Don’t trust your privacy to anything digital.
  • Don’t consider any kind of social networking to be a secret conversation. Your first clue? It has the word “social” is its name.
  • Don’t talk to people online in ways you wouldn’t talk to them in person.
  • Don’t share digital data unsecured or unencoded.
  • Don’t think Snapchat’s apology amounts to an epilogue on this story.

 ____________________

David Sheets is a freelance writer and editor, Region 7 director, and past-president of SPJ’s St. Louis Pro chapter. Reach him by e-mail at dksheets@gmail.com, on Twitter at @DKSheets, on Facebook and LinkedIn.

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