On June 30, Snapchat released its newest opt-in feature, the Snap Map. With one swipe, users’ Snapchat contacts appear on a map, making it easy to share one’s whereabouts with friends. As the company put it: “If you and a friend follow one another, you can share your locations with each other so you can see where they’re at and what’s going on around them!”
But that’s not all. Snapchat users will be able to use maps to check in on “sporting events, celebrations, breaking news, and more from all across the world.” In other words, Snapchat users will be able to see curated content uploaded by strangers. When users opt in to the feature, they encounter a “Welcome to Snap Map” animated screen followed by a tiny message that reads, “Using the Map requires location access.” Underneath this message—in larger font—is a blue button that reads “Allow.”
We are both big Snapchat users—as a senior in high school and sophomore in college, we are firmly in the app’s primary demographic. But if we had our way, this new tool would not be offered at all.
Snap Map does indeed connect us even more closely to our contacts. Knowing friends’ locations can allow people to find one another more easily and facilitate impromptu meetups. But this is taking the upside of connectivity too far. The locations aren’t estimates—they’re precise street addresses. The app can now be used to pinpoint the exact locations of your contacts, down to their homes. And that’s a huge problem. Especially because geolocation data is some of the most sensitive personal data.
This is a topic close to our hearts. We’re sisters, and we grew up hearing our mother Danielle Citron, who is an expert on cyberharassment and information privacy law, talk about the risks inherent in data collection. That hasn’t stopped us from loving apps like Snapchat and Instagram, but we are also acutely aware of the fact that our personal data is sold and traded in ways that are often unsafe.
Snapchat’s fan base is young: Sixty percent of users are under 25, and 23 percent haven’t graduated from high school yet. We both fall squarely into that demographic. We use Snapchat to stay connected with our friends and each other. When J.J. started her freshman year at Colgate University, Snapchat helped us stay in touch.
But we will not be opting into the Snap Map feature. Snapchat’s ability to track and trade users’ geolocation can be embarrassing and far worse. If you opt in but don’t end up using the feature regularly, you could easily forget you’re being tracked. Snap Map can reveal a visit to the psychiatrist or plastic surgeon. It can show an afternoon at the local bar, even though the user is underage. It can signal a visit to an ex-boyfriend’s house, something that a current love interest would not be thrilled to know about. Worse, the feature opens the door for that random Tinder match you added on Snapchat two years ago to find you walking alone at night.
In England, police have already raised concerns about the Snapchat’s newest update. Preston Police issued a statement on its Facebook page which emphasized the potential threat to younger users and detailed how to remove oneself from the service after opting in. Additionally, the U.K. Safer Internet Centre said: "It is important to be careful about who you share your location with, as it can allow people to build up a picture of where you live, go to school and spend your time.”
The real purpose of Snap Map may be to prove to your contacts that you are indeed social. Let’s face it: Someone who’s sitting on the couch watching a movie with her parents isn’t going to opt in. It’s the college student vacationing in Europe or the high schooler partying with friends who will opt in. In exchange for perceived social capital, users have sacrificed their privacy. With this in mind, we cannot expect them—especially young people—to proceed with caution.
So whose duty is it to educate kids about these risks? We think Snapchat has an obligation to educate its users about both the risks and benefits of the Snap Map. Users should be held accountable for their online behavior. But, at the same time, they should be aware—meaningfully aware—of what they’re opting into.