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Snapchat's privacy policies went 'from footnotes to headlines'

The Snapchat app is displayed on an Apple iPhone 5s.
Andrew Harrer | Bloomberg | Getty Images
The Snapchat app is displayed on an Apple iPhone 5s.

Online privacy policies — affectionately known as "the small print" — were once a gray link nestled at the bottom of a home page, full of boilerplate legal jargon to be scrolled past, blindly accepted or ignored. But if a recent brouhaha with Snapchat is any indication, more people might actually start reading the terms and conditions before clicking "I accept."

"Privacy policies have gone from footnotes to headlines, and it has been quite a rapid change," Mike Weston, CEO of London-based data science consultancy Profusion, told CNBC. "It comes at a time that people care how their data is being held and being used."

Messaging app Snapchat was in a pickle last weekend after what should have been a routine update was poorly received. The service, used to send messages that disappear after being opened, rewrote its terms and privacy policy in what was supposed to be clearer language — "so that they'd read the way people actually talk," according to a company blog post.

The updated policies caused confusion instead, and users took to social media with concerns that Snapchat was storing private messages on servers.


Despite the backlash, many of the changes highlighted on social media weren't new, or were organizational or stylistic and didn't introduce changes to the policies, a Snapchat representative said. For instance, unlike the November 2014 version, the new privacy policy is written in second-person tense, addressing the reader as "you."

The reformatted version simplifies the information that's collected by the company into three categories: "information you choose to give us," "information we get automatically when you use our services" and "information we get from third parties." It also breaks out four categories for how information is shared: "with other Snapchatters," "with our affiliates," "with third parties" and "in the aggregate."

The November 2014 version explained the policy on message deletion this way: "Delete is our default. That means that most messages sent through our Services will be automatically deleted once they have been viewed or have expired."

Compare that to the new version, which begins: "Snapchat captures what it's like to live in the moment. So in many cases the messages sent through our services are automatically deleted from our servers once we detect that they have been viewed or have expired. And again in most cases, the services are programmed to delete a message from the recipient's device once it's been viewed or expired as well." The new wording also removes mention of product updates like chats and mobile payments (Snapcash), and adds verbiage about live-streaming options.

The controversy isn't the first example of a privacy scare on social media, whether real or imagined. Facebook, for example, had to correct users who shared a fake post that claimed the company would begin charging a fee to keep profiles private. The wording in Snapchat's terms of service are almost identical to those of YouTube, Facebook, Pinterest, Tumblr, Instagram and Imgur, technology writer Mike Masnick pointed out Monday in a post on Tech Dirt.

The fallout was a clear example of how privacy policies have become integral not only for lawyers and regulators, but to how consumers view some companies' brands, said Weston.

"I do feel a little sorry for Snapchat, because they have tried to humanize the language of their privacy policy," Weston said. "And they have made a situation where people think, 'You are doing something that goes against what the service was for.' The idea of Snapchat is that [the content] disappears and is gone forever."

Snapchat is known among young people as one of the more trustworthy social networks. In a survey of 2,000 U.S. college students in July 2014, 35 percent said it was the most private, the top slot, according to a rewards program for college students called Sumpto that conducted the study. That was even after a data breach leaked user information only a few months before.

But brands are seeing a growing concern about the amount of personal data available online, said Rye Clifton, experience director at advertising agency GSD&M. Consumers are especially worried that anonymous databases from multiple platforms and sources could be connected to create a full profile of a person, Clifton said.

"You share different things on medical records, LinkedIn, Snapchat — but they might use the same email address," Clifton said. "There can be scary implications of putting those together. We are coming to a point where people are more cognizant of what's out there."

In a Sunday blog post, Snapchat let users know it does not stockpile messages — an approach that is becoming a best practice for brands, according to John Caruso, partner at digital customer experience agency MCD Partners. Indeed, this isn't Snapchat's first move toward being more transparent about data storage. In July, it released a transparency report, detailing the more than 700 requests from governments for user data.

"Next time Snapchat updates their policy, they'd be wise to adapt the more transparent language they used the second time around — and to keep in mind that the trust of their user base should never be taken for granted," Caruso told CNBC in an email. Snapchat declined to comment on that point.

Caruso doesn't think last weekend's gaffe will permanently affect Snapchat's brand, saying its young user base "is a group accustomed to sharing openly and often, and may be less rattled by the perceived threat to privacy." After all, only 16 percent of Internet users always read online privacy policies, according to a 2012 Internet Society survey of more than 10,000 people in 20 countries.

"My personal take on all of this is that I don't think users have a clue regarding what is happening to their data," Roald van Wyk, chief marketing officer at mobile platform Tone, told CNBC in an email. "They tend to go from outrage — 'What? Facebook now owns my photographs?' — to full acceptance/compliance in a matter of days. If we all had to read all the Terms and Conditions we probably have no time to actually use these platforms."

But as free services like Snapchat, Facebook and Twitter, aim to grow revenues, it's likely they'll continue to test the boundaries of commoditizing personal data, Clifton said.

For instance, Snapchat is now selling the option to replay a snap a user received, in addition to other products in the works. The blog post says the company needs "a broad license to use the content you create" for some of those products.

"The ease of use — sending snaps to contacts with one click, adding fun graphics and effects, watching digestible news clips, all without sucking storage from your phone — all seem to supersede the use of Snapchat solely to send fleeting images meant to disappear," Caruso told CNBC in an email. "But they'll need to be more careful in the future. Even the most well-designed interfaces or the sleekest apps will suffer if they don't add value — or worse, are perceived to add negative value — to the user. And if users, regardless of age, hear recurring rumblings of invasive policies, of betrayed trust — they won't stick around for long."