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In the World of Mobile Messaging Applications, there are NO Privacy Guarantees

On Thursday 8 May 2014, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) settled charges with mobile messaging application maker Snapchat. As the Wall Street Journal article reports, the gist of the alleged infractions (which were neither admitted nor denied by Snapchat) all relate to misleading consumers in one of three ways:

1. “By telling them (consumers) that messages would disappear.”
2. “Misrepresenting its (Snapchat’s) data collection practices.”
3. That Snapchat “didn’t adequately protect users’ personal data.”

I am not a lawyer, nor do I want to comment directly on the misfortunes of Snapchat who have now been ordered to implement a new comprehensive security program and agree to 20 years of monitoring by the FTC (an eternity in the technological world). I only bring this situation up as discussion points about, 1) what a technology company can and cannot guarantee users, and 2) what users of technology should look for in an application provider.

Working for technology companies for the last 25 years, I have seen many amazing changes occur in rapid fashion. We have gone from completely locked down proprietary systems where no Internet existed, to today’s cloud-based unified communications, where a 7-year-old can operate a smartphone to access an application that is maintained halfway around the world. As technology becomes more invasive in our lives, privacy issues are bound to increase exponentially. Perhaps part of the allure of today’s secure messaging trend is a direct backlash against broadcast technology, which has been so popular during the last few years. There seems to be a tug & pull between several technology trends: broadcast media vs. directed media; permanent vs. ephemeral content; data collection in order to serve up targeted online ads vs. temporary communication; contextual based communication vs. non-contextual communication; paid vs. free applications, and finally privacy vs. public disclosure. 

I cannot help but feel sorrow for a technology company that builds and launches (often for free) a great product that satisfies the needs of the vast majority of their users, but still gets slammed by the small minority, who complain to the Federal Government (in this case the FTC). Keep in mind, these users chose to use the product in the first place! The take away may be that technology companies need “full disclosure” of what their applications can and cannot do (explained in layman’s terms), and in addition they need to be up front with any information they gather on their users. The old adage that “nothing is free” may apply here. After all, how could Snapchat provide a product for free with no strings attached?  How could anyone for that matter? Perhaps users should look to technology companies that charge small fees for usage of their applications, but also fully disclose the application’s capabilities and limitations as well as if/how they handle customer information.

For instance, is making a claim that content will disappear guaranteed 100% of the time even a viable promise? Most people know that if you want to capture a screen on an Apple iPhone you push down on the “Hold Button” and while holding it down, you push down the “Home Button.” Most any message, or photo, sent to an iPhone user is susceptible to being copied and kept. Even if a technology company creates a product where the normal “screen capture” as described above does not work – what is to stop the recipient of a message whose content is meant by the sender to be private, from using a digital camera or secondary smartphone and taking a picture, or movie, of the screen and making it public? My point is there are myriad ways for the recipient of any form of media to copy and keep what is sent to them. There are even 3rd party programs specializing in thwarting “disappearing” messages and images.

Let’s assume in a professional business environment/setting the recipient and sender’s goals are aligned. In other words, the sender and receiver both want the text, photo, and/or video to disappear once they have reviewed it. If this is true, then most smartphone applications that promise privacy will be able to deliver. It is in the event that both senders’ and recipients’ goals are not aligned that we need to prepare for. What users need to know is that there is no 100% guarantee that text, images, and/or videos will disappear as intended by the sender, especially if the recipient’s goals are opposing or immoral. No technology vendor will be able to anticipate and prevent every unintended consequence of the use of their technology. Common sense by users should prevail.

In regards to what technology users should look for in an application provider, I would start with the belief that users of technology and those that create technology are partners. Partnerships will only be viable if there is a foundation of kindness, respect and honesty. So how does one determine if a technology company is a viable partner? Begin by excluding any companies that have proven they are not reliable partners. Review potential partners’ privacy policies and ensure that they adhere to it and that you agree with it. 

Another strength of the technology revolution is that users of technology have choices – they can vote with their feet, e.g., move to another application. In addition, and as mentioned above, nothing is free, so perhaps look for a technology provider/partner that charges as reasonable fee and clearly states in their privacy policy realistic expectations. For example, if you are looking for a secure messaging technology provider, ensure that their Privacy Policy states that all content on both servers and devices (smartphones) is encrypted to a certain level, encrypted during transmission through SSL, but that the vendor cannot guarantee content is not abused by recipients of that application. By being upfront and honest, the user knows the technology company’s privacy status and is well aware of what they are signing up for. 

Lastly, look for a technology provider who promises their sole source of funding is from the proceeds derived from sales by users of their technology and that they never share information with any 3rd parties at any time. They may charge users a small fee to use the application, but these days a small fee seems well worth the privacy it may buy. Just ask Snapchat.

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