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Accused of misleading users, Snapchat reaches settlement with FTC

Snap Chat icon.
Snap Chat icon.
Lionel Bonaventure/AFP/Getty Images

The main selling point of Snapchat has always been that when you send an image or a video to another user, it disappears after a few seconds. But it turns out not all those images were so fleeting; They were easy to save, and Snapchat knew it, according to the Federal Trade Commission, which said Wednesday that the Venice Beach-based company agreed to a settlement over charges that it mislead consumers and wasn't truthful about how it used their personal information.

“If a company markets privacy and security as key selling points in pitching its service to consumers, it is critical that it keep those promises,” said FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez in a statement.  “Any company that makes misrepresentations to consumers about its privacy and security practices risks FTC action.”  

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 also said "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."

Snapchat defended itself in a blog post:

While we were focused on building, some things didn’t get the attention they could have. One of those was being more precise with how we communicated with the Snapchat community. This morning we entered into a consent decree with the FTC that addresses concerns raised by the commission. Even before today’s consent decree was announced, we had resolved most of those concerns over the past year by improving the wording of our privacy policy, app description, and in-app just-in-time notifications. And we continue to invest heavily in security and countermeasures to prevent abuse.

The settlement with the FTC doesn't carry fines, but if Snapchat is found to violate the agreement, the company could pay a civil penalty of up to $16,000 for each violation. Under the agreement,  Snapchat will be required to implement a privacy program that will be monitored by an independent privacy professional for the next two decades.

In that respect, Snapchat finds itself in good company. Both Google and Facebook are subject to similar 20-year monitoring programs.