Snapchat is a mobile phone application intended to allow users to send photos to their friends and limit the amount of time for which the photos can be viewed.  Once the allotted viewing time has elapsed, Snapchat is meant to delete the photos entirely from the recipient’s device as well as from Snapchat’s servers so that it cannot be accessed again. Snapchat has gained quite a following since its launch in 2011; it currently reports that its users send 150 million “snaps” per day.  It seems, however, that the deletion of users’ images on Snapchat might not be so permanent.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), a self-described public interest research center focusing on privacy issues and consumer advocacy, filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) on May 16, alleging that Snapchat’s representations that its users’ photos “disappear forever” once viewed by a recipient are deceptive and likely to mislead consumers.  The complaint alleges violations of Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act and asks the Commission to investigate.  

Rather than entirely deleting a file after it has been viewed, the FTC complaint alleges, Snapchat adds a .nomedia extension to the end of the filename that is intended to prevent the file from being accessed again once viewed.  However, it is easy enough for tech-savvy users to remove the .nomedia extension and render the files viewable.  Snapchat’s policies do not describe this process and do not advise users that the files are recoverable.  Snapchat’s privacy policy does, however, state that “[a]lthough we attempt to delete image data as soon as possible after the message is received and opened by the recipient. . . we cannot guarantee that the message contents will be deleted in every case “  For example, the policy goes on to state, “users may take a picture of the message contents with another imaging device or capture a screenshot of the message contents on the device screen.” 

The complaint alleges that Snapchat’s representations to users “that photos sent using its app would be deleted after a user-designated amount of time” are “likely to mislead the reasonable consumer” and that those representations are material.  In addition to asking the FTC to investigate Snapchat’s claims that users’ images are permanently deleted, the complaint asks that the FTC require Snapchat to make improvements to its security practices to successfully delete users’ photos and to cure any deceptive statements about its services.