UPDATED: Al Rasheed: Snapchat security: Other people may see your “dirty little pixels”

By Sophia Al Rasheed / Columnist

Upon first hearing about an app that allows you to send pictures that are only visible for ten seconds, I had my doubts. An image that is available for ten seconds seems to give you just enough time to mentally say, “Hey, what’s this? Wait, what?!” 

Call me pessimistic about the often careless and extremely self-confident — or at least temporarily self-confident — nature of adolescents, but yes, my first question was whether the Snapchat app was intended for photos that would be, well, best if only viewed temporarily. In my defense, I happened to attend the school district where “sexting” first received both its name and local news recognition. To me, Snapchat seemed like a resolution to the problem of certain messages finding their way outside of the intended recipients — a problem that has consequences for both the individual and our approach to messaging as a whole. But this resolution can give a false sense of security.

It seems that conversations between cell phones are something that should be kept private. But pictures used in the smartphone arena aren’t normal conversation material, as recent trends in the use of explicit material indicate.  

But for some, Snapchat is little more than another form of innocent entertainment, and concerns about privacy are hard to come by. 

“Oh my God, no! It’s not for that!” defended my roommate, who tried to get me on board. “It’s just a way to send funny faces to each other and keep updated with each other.”

And boy, have the funny faces ensued. Since the popularity of the app, I’ve noticed multiple people making these faces in public. If you see someone aiming a phone toward his or her face, perhaps with double chin and/or under- or over-exaggerated smile, you’ve probably just witnessed someone in the act of “snapping.” 

It turns out, however, that my initial assumption that Snapchat is a cute name for a way to send some very dirty little pixels isn’t as crazy as it seemed, and more people than those you intended can see the pictures you send. A recent blog post from the Snapchat director of operations Micah Shaffer stated that Snapchat can view your unopened snaps — that is, if they remain unviewed for up to 24 hours — under certain circumstances, such as if a search warrant from law enforcement is received.

There have only been about a dozen of these warrants issued so far, but I think we can deduce the kind of material that prompts concern here.

Normally, I would object to this kind of infringement of privacy. In this case, the safety policy, which bases itself on the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, has good reasons for implementation. Hopefully the idea that your image could be viewed by someone aside from the intended recipient will lower the temptation to take explicit photos.

This isn’t the first legal push regarding explicit material, but rather, a consequence of legislation already in place. The Mobile Media Guard website, which highlights the implications of sexting for each individual state, states that “the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania lawmakers have proposed a law making sexting a second-degree misdemeanor for minors who intentionally or knowingly record, view, possess or transmit images of a minor (above the age of 13) engaged in sexually explicit conduct.” The other news you can find on this particular page is that there seems to be an ongoing account of new stories, demonstrating that many are still engaging in the activity despite the possible consequences, perhaps only furthering the case for legislation.

If it seems like we should be embarrassed that legislation is trying to ensure we don’t send naked photos to minors, it’s because we really should be embarrassed of ourselves. At the very least, this hobby should be kept as discreet as possible so that we don’t risk having its effects cast on a younger, impressionable generation and, more importantly, so that we don’t condone an environment in which this seems like normal behavior. 

Do yourself a favor and limit your snaps to the funny faces — you’re lucky there isn’t regulation for embarrassing yourself in public.

Write Sophia at [email protected].

Editor’s Note: A previous version of the article stated that the author’s Southwestern Pennsylvania high school served as the origin of the term “sexting.” This was incorrect. The first published appearance of the term occurred in an article for the Sunday Telegraph Magazine, a British publication, in 2005. The Pitt News regrets this error.