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Snapchat's privacy standard lags Google, Facebook, Apple

In the days following Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 presidential election, a relatively obscure texting app called Signal went viral on social media and its downloads spiked. Created by non-profit Open Whisper Systems, the app offers an extremely secure communication protocol of end-to-end encryption, meaning that any communication can only be read by the people who send and receive the messages.

And unlike other end-to-end encrypted products, such as Apple’s iMessage, Signal’s Snowden-endorsed protocol is open-source, providing verifiable public proof of security. In other words, anyone who wants to see how the system encrypts something can look at the code.

With anti-media sentiment in the White House growing and at least 10 states proposing crackdowns on peaceful protesting, the thirst for encrypted messaging is only growing.

“Millions of people used Signal before the election,” Signal’s creator Moxie Marlinspike told Yahoo Finance in an email. “Growth has continued to accelerate since then. We’ve seen a sustained 400% increase in daily installs.”

Snap has lagged behind Apple iMessage, Facebook, WhatsApp, and Google

In a messaging landscape that increasingly prioritizes security, one company has been conspicuously absent: Snap. Meanwhile, services like Facebook’s Messenger (FB), WhatsApp, Apple (AAPL) iMessage, Google’s Allo (GOOG), and others have all increased security.

“People expect their messages to be secure,” a Facebook spokesperson told Yahoo Finance. “Nearly all of the most popular messaging services use encryption. Encryption is one of the most important tools governments, companies and individuals have to promote safety and security.”

Snapchat, however, has not responded to this paradigm shift. Founded on the premise of disappearing messages by its current CEO Evan Spiegel, the app has long been the go-to messaging service for sensitive content and information, which led to its reputation as the “teen sexting app,” as Stratechery’s Ben Thompson called it. Snap did not respond to numerous requests for comment.

Snap CEO Evan Spiegel has been hailed as one of the most visionary Silicon Valley CEOs since Apple’s Steve Jobs. Source: AP

Today, the app boasts 158 million daily active users, and its parent company, Snap, is poised to make an IPO on March 2, with expectations topping a $25 billion valuation on the open market.

Unlike Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, Snap correctly assumed that not everyone wants a permanent, searchable trail of potentially compromising internet behavior. Snapchat privacy, through ephemerality, was its biggest asset. Before Snapchat, no company seemed to have recognized the value of a throwaway picture.

“We don’t stockpile your private communication, and we don’t show your friends an ongoing history of everything you’ve ever posted,” Snapchat says on its privacy page. “We believe that this approach makes the Snapchat app feel less like a permanent record, and more like a conversation with friends.”

Despite it being the app for sharing sensitive photographs, Snap appears unconcerned with being an industry leader in encryption and privacy, as other companies like Facebook have by implementing end-to-end encryption. In the reports of White House staffers using apps with enhanced security, Snap has been conspicuously absent. Meanwhile, favored apps like Signal and Confide have increased in status.

Snap has a history of playing it loose and sharing info with the the government

Though Snap advertises that its chats self-destruct, the company settled with the FTC in 2014 for not destroying data, misleading its users about how “disappeared” photos really were and having unsecured databases of numbers and names that could have been accessed by attackers.

Currently, Snap’s policy is to delete Snapchats automatically from its servers after the Snapchat has been opened. However, the system is not completely sealed. Requests from law enforcement, for example, can result in intercepted chat messages. “In certain limited circumstances it may be possible for us to retrieve the content of sent Snaps,” reads the current law enforcement policy, which notes that it’s often not possible after all messaging parties have opened the content. Additionally, email addresses, phone numbers, IPs and login information can be subpoenaed.

Its privacy policy offers more detail: “We cannot promise that deletion will occur within a specific timeframe. And we may need to suspend those deletion practices if we receive valid legal process asking us to preserve content or if we receive reports of abuse or other Terms of Service violations. Finally, we may also retain certain information in backup for a limited period of time or as required by law.”

In the first half of 2016, Snap produced data for law enforcement 82% of the time when requested and 63% of the time to international governmental entities according to the company’s transparency report.

All of this adds up to a big dilemma for Snap. As an app popular with teens, Snap has prioritized having policies that curb bullying, abuse, which can involve breaking down the walls of user privacy to to save a life. But by doing that, Snapchat may prevent itself from accompanying kids into adulthood as their go-to messaging app.

If that is its endgame, it may find itself stifled in a manner similar to China’s WeChat. Although the Chinese giant boasts close to a billion daily active users, the widespread belief that the Chinese government monitors and censors communication has prevented it from becoming a global powerhouse—especially in 2017. If tech companies have learned one thing in Trump’s America thus far—and from his administration’s personal habits—it’s that privacy matters.

Ethan Wolff-Mann is a writer at Yahoo Finance focusing on consumer issues, tech, and personal finance. Follow him on Twitter @ewolffmann. Got a tip? Send it to tips@yahoo-inc.com.

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