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Snapchat settles charges with FTC that it deceived users

The disappearing act of messages on Snapchat, the mobile messaging service, has not been as foolproof as the company promised.

The Federal Trade Commission on Thursday said Snapchat had agreed to settle charges that the company was deceiving users about the ephemeral nature of the photos and video messages sent through its service.

People take pictures in front of the Snapchat Inc. headquarters on the strand at Venice Beach in Los Angeles.
Patrick Fallon | Bloomberg | Getty Images
People take pictures in front of the Snapchat Inc. headquarters on the strand at Venice Beach in Los Angeles.

In marketing the service, Snapchat has said that its messages "disappear forever." But in its complaint, the commission said the messages, often called snaps, can be saved in several ways. The commission said that users can save a message by using a third-party app, for example, or employ simple workarounds that allow users to take a screenshot of messages without detection.

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The complaint also said Snapchat transmitted users' location information and collected sensitive data like address book contacts, despite its saying that it did not collect such information. The commission said the policies allowed security researchers to compile a database of 4.6 million user names and phone numbers during a recent security breach.

"If a company markets privacy and security as key selling points in pitching its service to consumers, it is critical that it keep those promises," Edith Ramirez, the chairwoman for the Federal Trade Commission, said in a statement. "Any company that makes misrepresentations to consumers about its privacy and security practices risks F.T.C. action."

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Under the terms of the settlement, Snapchat will be prohibited from misrepresenting how it maintains the privacy and confidentially of user information. The company will also be required to start a wide-ranging privacy program that will be independently monitored for 20 years. Fines could ensue if the company does not comply with the agreement.

Snapchat warns users about potential data collection in its privacy statement. The company says: "There may be ways to access messages while still in temporary storage on recipients' devices or, forensically, even after they are deleted. You should not use Snapchat to send messages if you want to be certain that the recipient cannot keep a copy."

The mobile messaging service Snapchat settled with the Federal Trade Commission over charges that the service inaccurately claimed that, once sent, messages disappeared.

The commission's complaint could not have come at a worse time for the company. Last year, Snapchat turned down a multibillion-dollar buyout offer from Facebook.

The company is based in Los Angeles and is run by Evan Spiegel and Bobby Murphy, two former fraternity brothers at Stanford. The service was first released in 2011 and quickly gained a following among high school students in Southern California. In recent months it has become one of the most sought-after businesses in the tech industry, drawing attention from venture capital firms in Silicon Valley as well as companies like Facebook and Google.

The company does not reveal the number of people currently using its service, but says it now shuttles more than 700 million messages back and forth to users each day.

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Snapchat is one of many tech start-ups that promise varying degrees of privacy or, in some cases, anonymity to its users. Mobile applications like Whisper, Secret, Confide and a number of others also assure their users that the content they share and sometimes even their identities are secure.

The case and the resulting settlement are part of a larger, continuing investigative effort by the commission to hold start-ups and companies accountable to their marketing claims and privacy assurances to consumers.

—By NYT's Jenna Wortham

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