Police: Snapchat app could put kids at risk

A privacy watchdog group has accused the popular mobile device app, Snapchat, of deceiving users by telling them their photos will “disappear forever.”

Snapchat is a wildly popular app that allows users to send videos or photos that the receiver can see for two to 10 seconds.

In a complaint to the Federal Trade Commission, the Electronic Privacy Information Center claims the pictures and videos “remain available to others even after users are informed that the photos and videos have been deleted.”

RTV6 did not reach Snapchat for a comment Friday, but the company’s website has a blog that addresses this concern.  

The company writes, “When a snap is viewed and the timer runs out, the app notifies our servers, which in turn notify the sender that the snap has been opened. Once we’ve been notified that a snap has been opened by all of its recipients, it is deleted from our servers. If a snap is still unopened after 30 days, it too is deleted from our servers.” 

Snapchat, which boasts 150 million "snaps" a day, has also faced criticism for being a predator's dream come true.

"Anytime you can only show an image for 2 seconds to 10 seconds, you have to wonder why," said Detective Mike Harris with the Jefferson County (Colo.) District Attorney's office.

"Why limit it and what's the reason of limiting it? Because obviously you're letting strangers who you don't know have access to those pictures and often times those strangers are what we call 'predators' and what law enforcement and the kids call 'creepers,'" Harris said.

Harris's team has arrested more than 600 "creepers" in his career, with 10 arrests this year alone.

"We've known about Snapchat for some time now and we're getting complaints that adults are sending inappropriate pictures to kids and asking them to send their inappropriate pictures," Harris told CALL7 Investigator Theresa Marchetta, at our sister Scripps station KMGH.

Since its debut in 2011, Snapchat has been reviewed aggressively on the web, called the photo app that is "made for sexting," an app that lets the user "continue to sext" without getting "black mailed" since the photos are "deleted in a matter of seconds."

"We've seen adult genitalia, we've seen naked females that you're not even asking for send pictures and they're just popping up and then people are asking you to send some of the same type of pictures," said Harris.

The app icon is a ghost, as in now you see it, now you don't.

"I'm not naive enough to think that there are going to be some kids that are going to do it just because it's going to be up there for 2 seconds," said Harris.

It is easy to Snapchat. Just take a picture of yourself, what is called a "selfie," then select how long you would like someone to see it -- from 2 to 10 seconds. You can add people and include as many as you want when sending out your image.

"Genius," said an 8th grader at Landmark Academy.

"It's like a creeper's dream pretty much," said another.

Snapchat is available not only for smartphones, but also on iPads or iPods, and predators know it.

"Have you ever had anyone send you a picture that was shocking or inappropriate?" Marchetta asked the 8th graders. About half the group said they had.

The teens were extremely savvy about how to stay safe online and also understand clearly why certain products are marketed to their age group.

"Because you can only do it for 5 or 10 seconds," one 8th grader said. "It's enticing kids to come out of their shell, maybe sending things they'd never think of doing or posting on Facebook."

Still, the teens told Marchetta the lure of getting "likes" for the images they post and accruing friends online has a competitive aspect that can be addicting and cause even the smartest kids to break the rules.

"You see people on Instagram saying 'I'm bored. Text me or message me at this number,' I've done that sometimes. I would put on my email or my number," said an 8th grade girl.

"Even if it's someone you don't know, you want to have a ton of people, so you just let them follow you," another teen said.

Mother Anna Berry is on social media more than most parents for her career in public relations, and she monitors everything her 13-year old daughter does online.

"If I can't be connected, she can't be on it," said mom Anna Berry.

But she cannot do that with Snapchat.

"Snapchat I'm just starting to learn about," said Berry.

"I use it more than I should probably," said her 7th grade daughter Ashley.

Ashley and her friends send silly pictures of themselves back and forth, and she said she never adds anyone to her account she does not know personally.

Berry trusts her daughter, but said monitoring her apps and interactions are just as important.

"Do you think parents have an idea what kids are doing and how young?" Marchetta asked Berry.

"I think there are a lot that don't," Berry said.

"Sometimes I'll be so tired because I stayed up 'til 1:00, even 2:00," an 8th grader told Marchetta.

"Do your parents know that?"  Marchetta asked.

The response from the group was laughter, then an admission their parents do not approve of using technology after bed time.

"I want people to notice me. I want attention. I think that's mostly what every teenager wants," said an 8th grade boy.
It is the kind of attention Snapchat attracts that has law enforcement concerned.

"Tomorrow it's going to be a new app because we are learning unfortunately about these sites not because they're good but because they're being misused to go after kids, and we're finding out when it's something bad happening to a child," said Harris. "The problem with all these apps from a law enforcement perspective is that there are so many and there are so many of them popping up in different formats and fashions that we have to learn it and we're learning and we're behind the curve learning it where these kids are making mistakes but also where predators are using these apps and sites to go after our kids."

Harris had a final warning for anyone using Snapchat. Even though the image you send is not saved, the person receiving it can still take a "screenshot" of the image, a still picture as it is displayed on their screen. 

The app lets the sender know if a screenshot is taken, but by then it is too late and the image has been preserved by whoever received it.

Harris advises parents to have a curfew on all technology in their household. He recommends having a charging station in a parent's bedroom so that a child's interaction is limited to a time of day they can be supervised.

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