Why privacy advocates say you shouldn’t trust Snapchat to have your back online


Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel.  (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

Which tech companies should you trust to have your back when it comes to privacy, transparency and protecting your rights online? Not Snapchat, says the Electronic Frontier Foundation in its fourth annual "Who Has Your Back" report, which was released Thursday.

The fledgling messaging app earned just one out of six stars in its first appearance in the report -- the lowest ranking out of the more than two dozen companies assessed by EFF based on their publicly available policies. The six categories it looked at were if the companies: 1) require a warrant for communications content; 2) tell users about government data requests; 3) publish transparency reports; 4) fight for users' privacy rights in courts; 5) publicly oppose mass surveillance; and 6) publish law enforcement guidelines.

Snapchat's only star came from the last category: The company has publicly posted its policy on how it responds to data demands from governments. Snapchat spokesperson Mary Ritti pushed back on the evaluation, telling The Washington Post that Snapchat "routinely requires a search warrant when law enforcement requests user data."

Ritti also said "the very nature of Snapchat means that we often don't have content to divulge" because the company deletes content from its servers after it detects that a Snap has been opened by all recipients. Snapchat recently agreed to an FTC settlement over charges that the company had deceived users about the disappearing nature of its messages, which the agency alleged could be saved or retrieved in ways not recognized in the company's marketing materials, as well as its data collection and security practices.

But it does sound like Snapchat has some additional privacy and transparency measures in the works. "We look forward to developing a formal transparency report and processes for providing notifications to users in the future," Ritti said.

According to Nate Cardozo, an EFF attorney who co-authored the report, it "should be a light lift" for Snapchat to take the necessary steps to improve its ranking, and the attention that comes with lagging behind is sort of the point. "One of the nice things about this report is that companies -- I can't say specifically which ones -- have changed their policies in part based on public scrutiny like this," Cardozo told The Post in an interview.

And a lot has changed in the four years that EFF has been publishing the report. In the first report, four companies received zero stars, while this year every company the group looked at was awarded at least one star. Nine companies received all six stars this year, including Facebook, Microsoft, Google and Yahoo.

Cardozo also said he has noticed trends year over year. Last year, he said, the big shift was toward transparency reports, which he argues are now the "new normal" for tech companies. This year, more companies were notifying users if they were the subject of a law enforcement request, he said.

But there was also a broader trend across the board toward privacy and transparency that Cardozo believes was driven in part by the revelations about National Security Agency spying over the past year.

"It's pretty clear that there's now a market for privacy in a way there's never been before," he said. "And companies are being asked by theirs users, 'What are you doing to protect me from government overreach?' more than has ever happened before."

 

Andrea Peterson covers technology policy for The Washington Post, with an emphasis on cybersecurity, consumer privacy, transparency, surveillance and open government.

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