Snapchat agreed to settle Federal Trade Commission charges on Thursday that the company wasn’t totally telling the most literal version of the truth when it assured customers that messages sent over the service “disappear forever” shortly after they are sent. And given the whole “disappearing forever” thing is kind of the point of Snapchat, it wasn't exactly a minor charge being hurled at the company.
Here’s the crux of the problem, from the FTC.
Touting the “ephemeral” nature of “snaps,” the term used to describe photo and video messages sent via the app, Snapchat marketed the app’s central feature as the user’s ability to send snaps that would “disappear forever" after the sender-designated time period expired. Despite Snapchat’s claims, the complaint describes several simple ways that recipients could save snaps indefinitely.
Consumers can, for example, use third-party apps to log into the Snapchat service, according to the complaint. Because the service’s deletion feature only functions in the official Snapchat app, recipients can use these widely available third-party apps to view and save snaps indefinitely. Indeed, such third-party apps have been downloaded millions of times. Despite a security researcher warning the company about this possibility, the complaint alleges, Snapchat continued to misrepresent that the sender controls how long a recipient can view a snap.
The FTC complaint also alleged Snapchat collected sensitive data of its users—like location and address book contacts—despite saying that it really wasn't. Their data-collecting ways came to light via a major security breach that Slate’s Will Oremus covered in-depth here. So what’s the company’s penance for its misdirection? "Under the terms of the settlement, Snapchat will be prohibited from misrepresenting how it maintains the privacy and confidentially of user information,” the New York Times reports. “The company will also be required to start a wide-ranging privacy program that will be independently monitored for 20 years.”