Cautionary tale evident in latest Snapchat snafu

Snapchat logo

Snapchat’s logo

Our society is chock full of rules, some of which deserve to be broken.

But before breaking one, try reading the fine print.

That salient detail might have helped those who were victimized by a security breach that leaked 200,000 images and videos, some possibly lurid and potentially embarrassing, that belonged to users of the photo messaging application Snapchat.

For those of you unaware, Snapchat is a mobile app with a programmable timer to limit availability of the photos and recorded videos its 100 million monthly users send to each other. Recipients have just a few seconds to view shared content before it disappears forever — in theory, anyway.

The appeal of an app such as this is obvious. Some photos — snapshots of a goofy face or what you ate for lunch — deserve only a few seconds of our time, whereas incriminating photos — sexy selfies and the like — we hope will last only a few seconds.

Friday, Snapchat acknowledged that some of its content stored by a third-party application turned up on a fake photo website. The third-party application, Snapsaved, apologized and took full responsibility, saying a misconfiguration of its servers left the app’s archives vulnerable to hacking. Initially, media reports had blamed Snapchat for letting the photos leak.

The site that published the photos, Viralpop.com, has since disappeared. What happened to its content remains uncertain. (Snapsaved’s site has been unresponsive since the breach was discovered.)

The current worry is that many of those 200,000 photos were provocative and incriminating — and now they may be everywhere. But Snapchat insists that less than a third of its content is too mature for the app’s youngest subscribers, ages 13 to 18. The other content, Snapchat says, is disposable, unmemorable.

It would be easy at this point to heap shame and insults on Snapsaved and curse it for not being more careful. But Snapsaved provided a service made possible only by Snapchat users breaking the rules they promised to uphold: In its terms-of-use policies, Snapchat prohibits users from culling and distributing content.

Of course, nobody reads terms-of-use policies, in part because the legalese used to craft them borders on unreadable. And where there are rules, there are rule breakers. Nevertheless, believe it or not, terms of use exist to protect customers’ rights, too.

This is why real blame for the photo leak rests with the Snapchat users who ignored the terms and in the process put people’s reputations —  perhaps even their own — at risk.

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