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May 12, 2014

In Our Opinion: Privacy is in the eye of the beholder

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The Daily Star

---- — “The Internet is forever, and people don’t realize that. ... You think you can delete a tweet or a Facebook post, but it doesn’t go away.”

— Security expert Nico Sell

The mobile messaging service Snapchat is in hot water with the Federal Trade Commission for promising its users something that sounds virtually impossible: photos (or videos) that disappear after 10 seconds. 

If you are thinking right now of the self-destructing recordings seen on the television show “Mission: Impossible,” don’t worry, you’re not alone. 

With Snapchat, though, there is no explosion or ominous music as a cue; the image (or video) simply vanishes after the allotted time. 

Well — sort of.  

In a way, the company’s settlement with the FTC doesn’t tell us anything new. The federal inquiry dates back a year, to an article in Forbes magazine that revealed technical workarounds to retrieve the “disappeared” files. 

Even before that, it doesn’t take a technical genius to realize that you could simply use another phone (or, gasp, an actual camera) to forever capture a Snapchat image, no matter how fleetingly it is displayed. 

So the story a company wants us to believe about its product is perhaps not quite exactly entirely true. 

Shocking. Absolutely shocking. 

Sarcasm aside, Snapchat’s settlement of the six-count complaint against it is yet another reminder — as if we need one — that privacy and the Internet just don’t seem to go well together, especially when social media are involved. 

We applaud the FTC for taking this company to task for not doing an adequate job to protect its users’ privacy and personal information. 

As FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez said in a statement, “If a company markets privacy and security as key selling points in pitching its service to consumers, it is critical that it keep those promises.” 

But users, too, must be thoughtful — and perhaps a little wary — when sharing information online. Time and time again, we seem to be finding that the “private” information we share with companies, or with others online, is anything but. 

Naturally, this makes services such as Snapchat — whose whole marketing platform is based on the idea of disappearing files — all the more appealing. 

However, it need not have taken the FTC to tell us that this system is far from foolproof. In fact, you need only read the company’s own language about its product, which reads, “In most cases, once the recipient has viewed a message, it is automatically deleted from Snapchat’s servers and cannot be retrieved.”

Another way of reading this statement would be, “Not all Snapchat messages are automatically deleted from the company’s servers after they have been read.” 

Never mind “caveat emptor”; after all, this is a free app. How about, “let the user beware”?1