Skip to main content

How secure are Snapchat-style apps?

By Bruce Schneier
March 26, 2014 -- Updated 1257 GMT (2057 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Bruce Schneier: Ephemeral messaging apps such as Snapchat are on the rise
  • Schneier: These apps claim they permanently delete your post, but that's not quite true
  • He says the app companies might analyze their content and give info to advertisers
  • Schneier: If the apps are not truly secure, dissidents who use them could be affected

Editor's note: Bruce Schneier is a security technologist and author of "Liars and Outliers: Enabling the Trust Society Needs to Thrive."

(CNN) -- Ephemeral messaging apps such as Snapchat, Wickr and Frankly, all of which advertise that your photo, message or update will only be accessible for a short period, are on the rise. Snapchat and Frankly, for example, claim they permanently delete messages, photos and videos after 10 seconds. After that, there's no record.

This notion is especially popular with young people, and these apps are an antidote to sites such as Facebook where everything you post lasts forever unless you take it down -- and taking it down is no guarantee that it isn't still available.

These ephemeral apps are the first concerted push against the permanence of Internet conversation. We started losing ephemeral conversation when computers began to mediate our communications. Computers naturally produce conversation records, and that data was often saved and archived.

Bruce Schneier
Bruce Schneier

The powerful and famous -- from Oliver North back in 1987 to Anthony Weiner in 2011 -- have been brought down by e-mails, texts, tweets and posts they thought private. Lots of us have been embroiled in more personal embarrassments resulting from things we've said either being saved for too long or shared too widely.

People have reacted to this permanent nature of Internet communications in ad hoc ways. We've deleted our stuff where possible and asked others not to forward our writings without permission. "Wall scrubbing" is the term used to describe the deletion of Facebook posts.

Sociologist Danah Boyd has written about teens who systematically delete every post they make on Facebook soon after they make it. Apps such as Wickr just automate the process. And it turns out there's a huge market in that.

Social media users migrating to smaller circles

Ephemeral conversation is easy to promise but hard to get right. In 2013, researchers discovered that Snapchat doesn't delete images as advertised; it merely changes their names so they're not easy to see. Whether this is a problem for users depends on how technically savvy their adversaries are, but it illustrates the difficulty of making instant deletion actually work.

The problem is that these new "ephemeral" conversations aren't really ephemeral the way a face-to-face unrecorded conversation would be. They're not ephemeral like a conversation during a walk in a deserted woods used to be before the invention of cell phones and GPS receivers.

At best, the data is recorded, used, saved and then deliberately deleted. At worst, the ephemeral nature is faked. While the apps make the posts, texts or messages unavailable to users quickly, they probably don't erase them off their systems immediately. They certainly don't erase them from their backup tapes, if they end up there.

The companies offering these apps might very well analyze their content and make that information available to advertisers. We don't know how much metadata is saved. In SnapChat, users can see the metadata even though they can't see the content and what it's used for. And if the government demanded copies of those conversations -- either through a secret NSA demand or a more normal legal process involving an employer or school -- the companies would have no choice but to hand them over.

Even worse, if the FBI or NSA demanded that American companies secretly store those conversations and not tell their users, breaking their promise of deletion, the companies would have no choice but to comply.

That last bit isn't just paranoia.

We know the U.S. government has done this to companies large and small. Lavabit was a small secure e-mail service, with an encryption system designed so that even the company had no access to users' e-mail. Last year, the NSA presented it with a secret court order demanding that it turn over its master key, thereby compromising the security of every user. Lavabit shut down its service rather than comply, but that option isn't feasible for larger companies. In 2011, Microsoft made some still-unknown changes to Skype to make NSA eavesdropping easier, but the security promises they advertised didn't change.

This is one of the reasons President Barack Obama's announcement that he will end one particular NSA collection program under one particular legal authority barely begins to solve the problem: the surveillance state is so robust that anything other than a major overhaul won't make a difference.

Of course, the typical Snapchat user doesn't care whether the U.S. government is monitoring his conversations. He's more concerned about his high school friends and his parents. But if these platforms are insecure, it's not just the NSA that one should worry about.

Dissidents in the Ukraine and elsewhere need security, and if they rely on ephemeral apps, they need to know that their own governments aren't saving copies of their chats. And even U.S. high school students need to know that their photos won't be surreptitiously saved and used against them years later.

The need for ephemeral conversation isn't some weird privacy fetish or the exclusive purview of criminals with something to hide. It represents a basic need for human privacy, and something every one of us had as a matter of course before the invention of microphones and recording devices.

We need ephemeral apps, but we need credible assurances from the companies that they are actually secure and credible assurances from the government that they won't be subverted.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Bruce Schneier.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
November 24, 2014 -- Updated 2310 GMT (0710 HKT)
If Obama thinks pushing out Hagel will be seen as the housecleaning many have eyed for his national security process, he'll be disappointed, says David Rothkopf.
November 25, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
The decision by the St. Louis County prosecuting attorney to announce the Ferguson grand jury decision at night was dangerous, says Jeff Toobin.
November 25, 2014 -- Updated 0857 GMT (1657 HKT)
China's influence in Latin America is nothing new. Beijing has a voracious appetite for natural resources and deep pockets, says Frida Ghitis.
November 24, 2014 -- Updated 2151 GMT (0551 HKT)
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks during a press conference in the capital Tehran on June 14, 2014.
The decision to extend the deadline for talks over Iran's nuclear program doesn't change Tehran's dubious history on the issue, writes Michael Rubin.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 1925 GMT (0325 HKT)
Maria Cardona says Republicans should appreciate President Obama's executive action on immigration.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 1244 GMT (2044 HKT)
Van Jones says the Hunger Games is a more sweeping critique of wealth inequality than Elizabeth Warren's speech.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2329 GMT (0729 HKT)
obama immigration
David Gergen: It's deeply troubling to grant legal safe haven to unauthorized immigrants by executive order.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0134 GMT (0934 HKT)
Charles Kaiser recalls a four-hour lunch that offered insight into the famed director's genius.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
The plan by President Obama to provide legal status to millions of undocumented adults living in the U.S. leaves Republicans in a political quandary.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0313 GMT (1113 HKT)
Despite criticism from those on the right, Obama's expected immigration plans won't make much difference to deportation numbers, says Ruben Navarette.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0121 GMT (0921 HKT)
As new information and accusers against Bill Cosby are brought to light, we are reminded of an unshakable feature of American life: rape culture.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2256 GMT (0656 HKT)
When black people protest against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, they're thought of as a "mob."
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 2011 GMT (0411 HKT)
Lost in much of the coverage of ISIS brutality is how successful the group has been at attracting other groups, says Peter Bergen.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Do recent developments mean that full legalization of pot is inevitable? Not necessarily, but one would hope so, says Jeffrey Miron.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
We don't know what Bill Cosby did or did not do, but these allegations should not be easily dismissed, says Leslie Morgan Steiner.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1519 GMT (2319 HKT)
Does Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas have the influence to bring stability to Jerusalem?
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1759 GMT (0159 HKT)
Even though there are far fewer people being stopped, does continued use of "broken windows" strategy mean minorities are still the target of undue police enforcement?
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 0258 GMT (1058 HKT)
The truth is, we ran away from the best progressive persuasion voice in our times because the ghost of our country's original sin still haunts us, writes Cornell Belcher.
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 2141 GMT (0541 HKT)
Children living in the Syrian city of Aleppo watch the sky. Not for signs of winter's approach, although the cold winds are already blowing, but for barrel bombs.
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
We're stuck in a kind of Middle East Bermuda Triangle where messy outcomes are more likely than neat solutions, says Aaron David Miller.
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1216 GMT (2016 HKT)
In the midst of the fight against Islamist rebels seeking to turn the clock back, a Kurdish region in Syria has approved a law ordering equality for women. Take that, ISIS!
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says President Obama would be justified in acting on his own to limit deportations
ADVERTISEMENT