Today in “reasons why you shouldn’t use Snapchat for illicit means,” the app’s head of trust and safety Micah Shaffer says that unopened Snaps can be and are turned over to law enforcement in certain cases.
“If we receive a search warrant from law enforcement for the contents of Snaps and those Snaps are still on our servers, a federal law called the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) obliges us to produce the Snaps to the requesting law enforcement agency.”
This shouldn’t come as any huge surprise; no site or app is safe from the ECPA and if something is stored on your servers and the federal government has a warrant demanding they’re able to access it … well, then you have to turn it over. What has caught Snapchat users a bit off guard is that the whole idea of ephemeral messaging is their content is supposed to disappear. Of course, if you still think Snapchat is a safety zone specializing in vanishing messages, you clearly haven’t been paying attention.
To break this down even more, here’s exactly what’s happening: When you send a Snap, before it’s opened it sits on a Google-hosted cloud server. Once the recipient opens the Snap, then it “disappears” (from the server – there’s no way to prevent screenshots … yet).
Furthermore, you may want to note that those new Snapchat Stories, which last 24 hours, are viewable for that via Snapchat’s servers.
So far, according to Schaffer, not too many Snaps have been handed over to the authorities. “Since May 2013, about a dozen of the search warrants we’ve received have resulted in us producing unopened Snaps to law enforcement. That’s out of 350 million Snaps sent every day.” But with the uptick (or just relative sudden awareness) of using social platforms to show off or communicate about illegal or NSFW activities (or those that contain evidence of assault – in which case, please, use social apps, you deserve what’s coming), it wouldn’t be terribly surprising if law enforcement agencies made Snapchat a regular stop in their investigations.