It would seem, by design and aesthetic, to be perhaps the safest app to deliver sensitive or private material. Like something out of Mission Impossible, the 700 million daily images and videos sent across the popular app Snapchat self-destruct within seconds. At least, they’re supposed to. But in this modern epoch of rampant online privacy breaches and celebrity hackers — even pics that go poof aren’t safe.
The leak broke open — where else? — on a message board on 4chan.org, that lawless corner of the Internet pervaded by hackers and pranksters who get a kick out of humiliation. One such user was behind The Fappening, a recent dump of celebrity private photos, depicting Jennifer Lawrence, Rihanna, and many others. Then another orchestrated a subsequent prank targeting Emma Watson after she delivered a well-received speech on feminism. And now this: “The Snappening.”
According to the Guardian, here’s how it went down: some Snapchat users had downloaded something called “Snapsaved.com.” The service, which now appears to be defunct, purportedly allowed its denizens to use Snapchat on their personal computer rather than their mobile phones. Thus gaining the users passwords, Snapsaved.com wiggled into thousands of users accounts, collected images for perhaps years and made off with the goods. The Guardian reported the agent behind the Snapchat affair has ties to the previous celebrity leaks, though some on Reddit cast doubt on that assessment.
But Snapchat evidently didn’t succeed in removing them all, and, in fairness to the company, how could it? Some of the darker corners of the Internet are populated by professional hackers who have made a quasi-career out of collecting allegedly secure photos and then disgorging them online to amass street cred in the hacker community. It speaks to an unregulated, often cruel online environment of revenge porn, Anthony Weiners, victimized celebrities — and officials who can seem too slow to react.
There are, however, tremors of change. Chris Grayling, the United Kingdom’s justice secretary, announced on Sunday that revenge porn, the act of humiliating a former lover by posting private photos of them online, will now be a criminal offense punishable by two years in prison. “The fact that there are individuals who are cruelly distributing intimate pictures of their former partners without their consent is almost beyond belief,” the Guardian reports him saying. “We want those who fall victim to this type of disgusting behavior to know that we are on their side and will do everything we can to bring offenders to justice.”
There are already numerous laws in place that outlaw stealing private photos and leaking them to online message boards. But passing a law is one thing; enforcing it is another. Despite the weeks since that have passed since the original celebrity leaks, and the attention they have drawn, no arrests have yet been made, and it’s unclear whether authorities have any leads. Same goes for the recent Snapchat leak. Hackers can reach out of the darkness, and then disappear back into it.
“The Great Celebrity Naked Photo Leak of 2014 — or perhaps we should call it The Great Celebrity Naked Photo Leak of August 2014, given that this happens so often that there won’t be only one this year,” wrote columnist Roxane Gay, describing a nascent era of online insecurity. Which is something Snapchat knew even before this leak.
In January of this year, hackers pilfered 4.6 million usernames and phone numbers off Snapchat accounts, posting the ill-gotten materials online. Then months later, more Snapchat accounts were hijacked and used to dispatch spam that advertised, of all things, “the holy grail of weight loss.”
Then, and now, Snapchat says that it wasn’t their fault. It was the fault of the hackers. Or the users themselves.
“But for them to just turn round and say, ‘It’s the users’ fault,’ does seem harsh,” Mark James, an online security specialist, told the BBC. “They give the perception it is safe, they need to make it safe. They need to crack down on people’s ability to access their data.”
The nature of today’s internet suggests that this is much easier said than done.