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Snap Geolocation
SECURITY SHELF

Snap Geolocation 

With 60 per cent of users under 25 years of age, according to Statista, and another 26 per cent between ages 25 and 34, it is fair to say that Snapchat is dominated by young people. In addition to sending text, photos, and videos, the popular app provides incentives for regular use. According to Snap Inc.’s initial public offering prospectus filed in February 2017, on average 158 million people use Snapchat daily, opening the app an average of 18 times a day.

Snap Map adds the ability for Snapchat users to share their location with friends. Users have the choice of sharing their location with all friends, a selected subset, or turning on “Ghost Mode” to keep their location private. According to the company, “Your location on the Snap Map is only updated when you’re using Snapchat — so you don’t have to worry about your location being updated in the background or anything. Your location on the Map will expire after several hours, or as soon as you go into Ghost Mode.”

While some parents are expressing concern, it is important to consider the Snap Map risk within context. Many applications include location awareness and sharing. These include Apple’s built-in Find My iPhone and Find My Friends, and a multitude of similar apps for iOS and Android. Other applications also collect location information, including Google Maps. All of these applications create some privacy risk.

Snap Map only sends information while the app is running. This can obviously result in location disclosure, but degrades the information in two important aspects: First, friends can only actively track each other while the application is open. Second, there is no way to tell if the user is still at the location, short of asking them. Compared to Apple’s Find My Friends, which provides real-time background tracking, Snap Map appears to present a lower level of risk.

The physical location where Snapchat is used is an important factor. In some circumstances disclosing the location of one’s home may create risk, but parents need to keep that risk in perspective. In the 1970s and 80s, prior to the Internet, teens knew where each other lived. For the most part, addresses were in the local phone book. And despite social media anecdotes, the overall crime rate in Canada today is about the same as it was in the early 1970s; lower than in the 80s and 90s. If Snapchat users only “friend” people they know, there is no reason to believe that the location of their home appearing on Snap Map for a few hours creates any new risk.

It is certainly possible that using Snapchat with location sharing enabled could divulge visits to other places that people would prefer remain private. But, since the application makes participation optional, and is clear about how and when it works, control is appropriately in the user’s hands.

Like many other messaging and social media applications, the most important privacy concerns are what users share, who they share it with, and how secure the service is behind the scenes.

It is possible that Snapchat could be hacked, resulting in a disclosure of all information traversing the service. As a user of a free service, there is no practical way to assess its security.

Snapchat users, and their parents, should consider the following:

  • Snapchat does not provide end-to-end encryption and is therefore not suitable for communicating confidential information.
  • Like most messaging and geolocation applications, Snapchat users should consider the implication of the images, text, and locations they choose to share. (For this reason, young children should not use Snapchat.)
  • Snapchat “friends” should be real friends, not strangers or casual acquaintances.
  • Companies using Snapchat for public relations should review their policies with respect to geolocation features.
  • User should consider leaving Ghost Mode turned on, and only turning it off when they intend to share their current location.

Overall, Snap Maps only duplicates the privacy risk found in other mobile applications. Provided that users remain aware of how the application works, and exercise appropriate judgement, the privacy risks appear manageable.

Have a security question you’d like answered in a future column? Eric would love to hear from you.

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