I’d be lying if I said I knew exactly what Snapchat was, how it worked, or why anyone would want to use it, but I do know that it represents a pretty intense privacy risk.
The photo- and video-sharing app recently introduced a new feature known as Snap Map, which is a fun way to show fellow users where you’ve been. Unfortunately, it’s also an easy way for potentially unsavory people to track you at all times, which can be especially disastrous given Snapchat’s young demographics.
WeLiveSecurity, the official blog from Bratislava, Slovakia-based security firm ESET, covered the potential risk. Snapchat introduced its Snap Map feature in a YouTube video that shows globetrotting users sharing their locations and seeing where their friends might be at the moment. Sounds useful, but there’s a catch. Users don’t choose when to tag their locations; Snapchat simply tracks them and broadcasts where they are constantly. To make matters worse, it’s an opt-out process; until users modify their settings, their locations will be up for grabs.
First things first: If you have Snapchat on your phone and you’re not keen on sharing your whereabouts with your friends list at all times, you can enable Ghost Mode, which makes your location inaccessible to other users. To do so, open Snapchat, access the Settings in the upper-right corner and select Ghost Mode. This doesn’t prevent Snapchat from tracking your location at all times, but it does prevent the app from broadcasting where you are.
(What Snapchat does with the data, and whether it’s of interest to advertisers or government agencies, is a question worth asking, but not an immediate concern for this story.)
To be clear, Snapchat doesn’t share your location with strangers; only with individuals on your friends list. Still, that doesn’t make the feature totally benign. Snapchat boasts a huge contingent of teenage (and younger) users, many of whom aren’t too discerning about who winds up on their friends list. Phishing or impersonation, too, are threats for Snapchat, just the same as any other social media account. A stranger (or a family member, or a bully, or a marketing firm) with ill intent could easily track a user down in person.
The Daily Telegraph even reported on a warning issued by the Preston police force, in which the officers warned users (especially young ones) to enable Ghost Mode ASAP. The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children was also quick to latch onto the risk:
“It is worrying that Snapchat is allowing under 18s to broadcast their location on the app,” said a spokesperson. “This highlights why it’s vital children are automatically offered safer accounts on social media to ensure they are protected from unnecessary risks.”
There’s no evidence that Snap Map has been used for fell purposes thus far, so it’s probably not time to hurl your phone into the ocean just yet. Still, activating Ghost Mode eliminates an unnecessary risk — even if Snapchat really should make it an opt-in process rather than opt-out.