When it launched, Snapchat promised users a new level of privacy and security by destroying any messages sent on the app, both from user devices and their own servers.
This promise sounds pretty great, but how much truth is there to it? For example, can the police or other authorities somehow access your Snapchat messages?
Police cannot retrieve the contents of your Snapchat messages, because Snapchat deletes messages from people’s device and even their own servers. However, Snapchat does not delete metadata, meaning who you messaged, when, how often, etc. Snapchat saves this information and shares it with the police.
Retrieving messages from Snapchats servers
In its terms of service, Snapchat has a dedicated section that describes what information it hands over to police and under what conditions:
As a U.S. company, Snap requires U.S. law enforcement and governmental agencies to follow U.S. law in order for Snap to disclose any Snapchat account records.
Our ability to disclose Snapchat account records is generally governed by the Stored Communications Act, 18 U.S.C. § 2701, et seq. The SCA mandates that we disclose certain Snapchat account records only in response to specific types of legal process, including subpoenas, court orders, and search warrants.
However, in its Law Enforcement Guide (page 15), Snapchat carefully explains that it automatically deletes the contents of messages from its servers and that this process is irreversible.
As explained in Section III “How Snapchat Works” above, Snap’s servers are designed to automatically delete most user content by default, such as the content of communications, after a limited period of time, unless it is otherwise saved by a Snapchatter.
This is important because both those documents are legally binding. In other words, Snapchat can be sued for false advertising and more if it doesn’t permanently delete user messages and conversations.
Based on this, it would seem that Snapchat does give whatever information it can to the police, but that this information doesn’t include the contents of messages.
However, there are quite a few cases where a person was convicted or jailed thanks to Snapchat evidence:
- Snapchat messages to juvenile land man in jail
- Snapchat predator jailed for grooming girls while on bail for similar offences
- Ribble Valley man sent lewd Snapchat messages to girl, 16
But if Snapchat does delete messages, then how were the police able to use it to obtain convictions or arrests?
In short, it probably involved the following:
- Messages that were saved by other users.
- Forensic analysis on the suspect’s phone.
- Snapchat sharing messages to the police before deleting them.
Metadata basically means “data about data,” and in Snapchat’s case, it covers the following aspects:
- Who sends a message and to whom.
- When did they send the message.
- From what device did they send a message.
- From what location did they send the message.
- How many messages they have sent.
- Whether the message was a photo or a text.
- What phone number is associated with an account.
- Score streaks.
As you can imagine, this information is incredibly valuable to law enforcement since it allows them to corroborate it with other pieces of evidence to form a clear picture of what happened.
Crucially, however, Snapchat never deletes this metadata and permanently stores it in its archive.
Because of Snapchat’s metadata, the police can know if person X and person Y messaged each other, even if they don’t know what they chatted about.
However, depending on what other evidence the police has, this Snapchat metadata is often enough to get a solid case going.
Screenshots and saved messages
Screenshotting a message is the simplest way to bypass Snapchat’s automatic deletion feature. Not only that, but these screenshots can be used by the police as evidence.
Snapchat normally alerts users if their conversation was screenshotted, but this can quite easily be avoided through various techniques such as:
- Recording the screen as a video instead of image screenshots.
- Deactivating Internet connection before taking the screenshot.
- Using another smartphone to take a photo of the screen.
This means the police can read your Snapchat messages, if the person you are chatting with is determined enough to save them.
Another possible way for police to read your Snapchat messages is by obtaining a warrant to search your phone.
This can also affect Snapchat, since in some cases, media files sent on Snapchat are saved onto your device’s gallery, complete with metadata.
Police can eavesdrop on your Snapchat messages
As of 2023, it appears Snapchat does not apply end-to-end encryption to its messaging feature.
Without end-to-end encryption, a determined hacker can intercept conversations between two people and practically read them in real time.
If you think this is an exaggeration, you can read this story of how the FBI wiretapped Snapchat communications of a criminal gang in real time.
During the operation, the FBI was able to intercept both audio and video the gang sent on Snapchat.
This means that the police won’t be able to access your past conversations, but they do have the capacity to read every message you send or receive after becoming a suspect.
Alternatives to Snapchat
If you’re after privacy and security, then it’s safe to say Snapchat isn’t a very safe or secure communication app.
At the end of the day, Snapchat doesn’t delete messages as a privacy feature; it deletes them as a way to make conversations more interesting and lively. Snapchat is very much an “entertainment app” and not a “secure communication app”.
If you really value privacy and security, then the best alternatives to Snapchat are:
Telegram is generally a very safe and secure messaging app, although its marketing is better than the security features it actually provides.
Telegram comes with a feature called Secret Chats. These Secret Chats are encrypted end-to-end, meaning that only you and the other person can read them.
Anyone else, including Telegram itself, has no way of decrypting these conversations or snooping in on them since they do not possess the decryption key to unlock them.
Another advantage to Secret Chats is that they come with a self-destruct timer, similar to Snapchat, where every message you send is destroyed after a specified amount of time.
On top of this, Telegram exists in a sort of legal gray area since they have offices in countries that make it very difficult to obtain interception warrants.
However, normal chats and group discussions are not end-to-end encrypted. This means that a determined hacker might be able to eavesdrop on these conversations.
So far, though, public records contain no such data breach, so for the time being, its reputation as a secure and private messaging app is still deserved.
Finally, Telegram also comes with some super nice features and communities, which combined make it an interesting source of content, news, and the latest information.
Signal is the ultimate app if you value privacy and security above all else. Unlike Telegram, Signal doesn’t even store information on outside servers.
This means the entire chat history you have with someone exists only on your phone and not the other person’s.
In other words, it’s impossible for Signal to give your messages to the police because it never had them in the first place.
Every conversation is, by default, end-to-end encrypted, and there is no way to turn this off. Another benefit of Signal is that it also encrypts a conversation’s metadata, not just the messages.
Finally, similar to Snapchat, it also comes with a self-destruction feature where you can set when a message will delete itself.
The big problem with Signal is mostly on a user experience level. The app sacrifices a lot to be safe and secure, meaning it sometimes feels slower and wonkier to use than Telegram or Snapchat.
Still, if you want absolute privacy at the cost of anything else, Signal is the app to go to.
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