Why I’m Not Worried That It’s Possible To Undelete Snapchat Photos

As my Forbes colleague Kashmir Hill pointed out last week, forensics examiner Richard Hickman blogged that he had successfully restored dozens of  ”deleted” Snapchat photos from Android phones.

I don’t disagree with Hill’s observation that this news “may make some Snapchat users think twice before sending a photo that they think is going to quickly disappear,” but I also don’t think people should necessarily stop using Snapchat or force their kids to abandon the popular photo sharing app just because we now know that it’s possible to restore photos.

Why it may not matter

Does it really matter that Snapchat photos can be restored?

To begin with, there’s never been an iron-clad guarantee that what you share on Snapchat can’t be copied and distributed. While Hickman’s revelation may be new, it’s long been known that there are ways to capture screenshots of Snapchat photos either by using the operating system’s built-in screen capture or by taking a picture of the screen with another device.  There is even a well-publicized hack that, according to Mashable, allows people to circumvent Snapchat’s feature to notify users if someone does a screen capture.

Another thing to remember is that Hickman’s method requires that an expert such as himself has physical possession of the phone. It can’t be done remotely. And while it may someday be relatively easy to do what he’s doing, it’s currently a very time consuming and expensive process. His firm,Decipher Forensics, plans to charge between $300 and $500 per device. Parents, law enforcement and others who want to have them restore a picture are required to send in the phone and, after the photos are restored, the company will return the phone and a flash drive with the pictures, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Don’t use Snapchat for really important secrets

Snapchat isn’t denying Hickman’s claim. In a blog post, Snapchat acknowledges that  ”with the right forensic tools, it’s sometimes possible to retrieve data after it has been deleted. So… you know… keep that in mind before putting any state secrets in your selfies :).”

Clearly, if you plan to break the law or are engaged in super-secret business activities, you should avoid using Snapchat or any other photo sharing or social network to transmit evidence. For that matter, you should also avoid email or any other digital means of communications.  But for normal communications, I’m not too worried about being snooped on via Snapchat, considering the hassle and cost involved in retrieving deleted information.

Kids and Snapchat

As I recently wrote (What is Snapchat and Why Do Kids Love It and Parents Fear It?) Snapchat is popular among teens and preteens (though you’re supposed to be at least 13 to use it) and there are plenty of things people do with the program besides sexting and other illicit activities.  While it is certainly possible to use Shapchat to take naked pictures of oneself or share evidence of a crime or misdeed that you hope will vanish, the actual use-case mostly centers around taking images that have nothing to do with nudity or crimes. Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel recently said that there are 150 million images shared daily.

The main reason I’m not worried about kids use of Snapchat is because the vast majority of them are smart when it comes to their use of apps and social technology. Of course kids will take some risks (that’s what they’re supposed to do) but research has shown that kids are a lot smarter about their use of technology than a lot of adults give them credit for.

Moral panics

Years ago there was a moral panic about kids being at risk from predators as if all but a tiny minority of kids were naive enough to get together for sex with people they met online.  As I wrote on my CNET blog, a national task force (which I was on) spent a year studying the risk and determined  that “actual threats that youth may face appear to be different than the threats most people imagine” and that “the image presented by the media of an older male deceiving and preying on a young child does not paint an accurate picture of the nature of the majority of sexual solicitations and Internet-initiated offline encounters” (quoting the report of the Internet Safety Technical Task Force).  After the predator panic had diminished people started panicking about bullying but even that risk has been exaggerated as is the risk of sexting.

I’m not suggesting that there is no risk associated with Snapchat but I am suggesting that we avoid both being lulled into a false sense of security and panicking over risks that are very unlikely to materialize.

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