Snapchat CEO and co-founder Evan Spiegel in front of Snapchat's Venice, CA headquarters.
(Photo: Jefferson Graham, USA TODAY)
Katey Psencik, USA TODAY Collegiate Correspondent
Mobile applications such as Snapchat and Whisper, popular among college students, have raised widespread concerns about user privacy since their creation. The recent exposure of surveillance tactics by the National Security Agency raises even more questions about what privacy really means - and that college students should potentially be more careful about what they're sharing on these "confidential" apps.
A Google search for "Snapchat" leads to the app's website and app stores, as well as a few news stories. However, click over to the "Images" tab and it's a different story.
Screenshots of supposedly private "snaps" have been uploaded to Facebook pages with titles like "Snapchat Adults Only," "Snapchat Unseen" and "Snapchat Leaked," which has an accompanying website. The sites post user-submitted snaps sent between users of the app, ranging from the obscene to the simply embarrassing.
By now it's become evident that Snapchat was never the safe-sexting app everyone expected. It takes very little tech knowledge to figure out how to retrieve Snapchat files from an iPhone or Android device.
Furthermore, Snapchat has never claimed to be totally secure. While the app description says that the snaps "disappear forever," Snapchat executives say this may not always be true.
The privacy terms say, "When you send or receive messages using the Snapchat services, we temporarily process and store your images and videos in order to provide our services. Although we attempt to delete image data as soon as possible after the message is received and opened by the recipient (and after a certain period of time if they don't open the message), we cannot guarantee that the message contents will be deleted in every case."
This means that the company that playfully promised that your "ugly selfies" will be gone forever may or may not store them on its servers for eternity.
Whisper, which allows users to share written secrets atop photos and illustrations - reminiscent of the website PostSecret - is another sharing app popular among college students.
Creator Michael Heyward told New York University's student newspaper, Washington Square News, that Whisper users "can be exactly who (they) are without judgment or consequence."
However, in an interview with Business Insider, PostSecret creator Frank Warren warned Whisper users of potential consequences.
"When you're talking about hundreds, or tens and thousands of users, you're talking about people who don't have the best intentions," Warren said. "And you're talking about young boys and girls, teenagers, sharing very intimate details in private. I just would hope they're aware of all the potentialities and app can enable between people and I hope they're careful with it."
Unlike Snapchat, Whisper doesn't claim that user posts "disappear forever." But it does claim anonymity in its app description: "Whisper is an anonymous social network that lets you share confessions, express yourself and meet new people."
If app users aren't leery of their security after reading the privacy policies' fine print, technology news site TechEye announced in March that iPhones are the most easily hacked mobile devices. iPhones can be broken into in a few easy steps - most of which are outlined in YouTube tutorials and other Internet guides.
Similarly, a public Wi-Fi connection can make Android devices simple to hack, according to a German tech security researcher. Online hacking tutorials can be found for Androids, too.
A 2011 study by NBC news revealed that 70% of U.S. smartphone users either own iPhones or Androids. A Colorado University study presented similar data, saying that 40% of college students use iPhones and 22% use Androids.
This means that more than half of all college students can be easily hacked and their supposedly private information from these apps could be exposed to anyone with an Internet connection.
While the "it won't happen to me" mentality is pervasive throughout college students, the solution is simple: If you don't want the whole world to see something, never send it over an Internet connection.