Snapchat finally atones for its spotty privacy record, taking steps to be more secure and transparent
The company that's become a sensation among young millennials is finally acting like a grown-up.
According to an interview at Backchannel, Snapchat has closed all the holes that allowed third-party developers to access its service. It's also published its first-ever transparency report -- perhaps the only document outside an S-1 filing that shows a company's "made it" -- and apologized for how the company has handled security and privacy issues since its app debuted.
The transparency report reveals that the United States made more requests for user data than all other countries combined, and that the company produced at least some data for 92 percent of the US government's requests; it did the same for just 31 percent of the other countries' requests for similar data.
That means the US government isn't only asking for information -- it's receiving it. But in Snapchat's defense, the company told Backchannel it "successfully narrowed the scope of specific requests" in some cases, and often provided metadata instead of bona fide content. (Which isn't to say metadata isn't valuable.)
Publishing this transparency report seems to be part of a larger effort by Snapchat to atone for its questionable record on security and privacy. Before today's announcement, for example, Snapchat failed to prevent third-party developers from accessing its service. That led to the publication of thousands of images stolen from a third-party application called SnapSaved, which allowed Snapchat users to save the ostensibly-ephemeral images to their computer. And so if the company has truly managed to prevent apps like these from working, that's a huge step toward making users more secure.
Snapchat's executives mentioned this incident in their Backchannel interview:
When one of those apps, called Snapsaved, was hacked, the perpetrators posted over 90,000 picture and videos online. Even though Snapchat itself wasn’t directly victimized in what was dubbed The Snappening, Snapchat admits that the company should have been more proactive in stopping third-party services. And in our meeting, the executives reiterated their apology for that incident.
This doesn't mean Snapchat is above reproach. Apologizing doesn't undo the company's mistakes, and it certainly doesn't help the people whose images were already leaked. But it goes a long way towards addressing a problem Pando's David Holmes wrote about last December when Spiegel became caught in the crossfire of the massive Sony hack:
In some ways, Spiegel’s internal message to employees is commendable, displaying a strong sense of leadership in the wake of the breach. But by making the statement public, the CEO comes off as a bit hypocritical in light of the company’s spotty record on protecting user data. Perhaps this is one secret Snapchat should have kept to itself.
Young companies often refuse to fix problems or own up to mistakes. But by speaking with Backchannel about its previous issues, releasing this transparency report so consumers know what's happening with their data, and working to prevent third-party apps from stealing information, Snapchat might finally be exiting its adolescent phase.
[illustration by Brad Jonas]