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FTC Settles Privacy Case With Snapchat

The Federal Trade Commission has just settled a major privacy case with Snapchat, the developer of a popular messaging app.  Snapchat promised its users that pictures and videos, called "snaps" would quickly disappear after being viewed by the recipient.

As the developer put it in its FAQs, according to the FTC:

Is there any way to view an image after the time has expired?
No, snaps disappear after the timer runs out.

The problem was that Snapchat's claim simply wasn't true.   There were several easy ways that the messages could be saved.  For instance, because a copy of a video message was stored outside the app's "sandbox" on the mobile device, a user could simply plug the device into a computer, browse to find and save the file. There were other ways as well.  Other developers offered apps to connect to Snapchat, completely bypassing the timer and "delete" functions.

The FTC also said the company deceived consumers over the amount of personal data it collected and the security measures taken to protect that data from misuse and unauthorized disclosure. Snapchat’s failure to secure its Find Friends feature resulted in a security breach that enabled attackers to compile a database of 4.6 million Snapchat usernames and phone numbers, the FTC said.

The consent agreement prohibits Snapchat from misrepresenting the extent to which it maintains the privacy, security, or confidentiality of users’ information.  In addition, the company will be required to implement a comprehensive privacy program that will be monitored by an independent privacy professional for the next 20 years.

Both Google and Facebook are operating under similar consent agreements. When Google violated its accord by hacking around privacy settings on Apples's Safari web browser and lying to users about what it was doing, the Internet giant was fined $22.5 million, a record.

The FTC -- as it should -- takes these consent agreements seriously.  "As the country’s primary agency charged with protecting privacy in the commercial sphere, the FTC actively uses its civil enforcement authority and research and policy function to help ensure that consumers can enjoy the benefits of technological innovation confident that their information will be used responsibly," Chairwoman Edith Ramirez, told The Media Institute as the the Snapchat settlement was being announced.

Ramirez said that consumer confidence is essential in an era of "big data"  and the developing "Internet of Things." The way you ensure that confidence is "by giving consumers greater control over their information in order to build their trust," she said

And, I might add, when companies deceive their customers about their privacy practices and their security procedures, you go after them  as the FTC has just done with Snapchat.