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Snapchat "Disappearing" Messages: What it is & why you should care

By Dina Ferriero | Tuesday, July 2nd, 2013

You may have heard of it – the newest social media app that’s sweeping the 18-25 year old demographic – Snapchat. But what is it, and how could the technology behind it affect the business world?

What is Snapchat?

Snapchat is a photo messaging application in which users can take photos or record short videos on their smartphones, then add text or drawing and send them to select contacts. When sending the content, users have the ability to set a time limit for how long the recipients can view it (up to 10 seconds), after which the photo or video will disappear from the recipient's device.

Here’s a recent Snapchat ad that depicts how the app is used:

How could it affect businesses?

While the app itself is primarily intended for use in the social sphere, the technology that powers Snapchat has caught the attention of some developers in the business world. Companies that regularly send and receive emails with highly sensitive or proprietary information are interested in having the ability to make those messages disappear after they’ve been read.
The idea is that email content would never actually reach the recipient’s internal server. The sender enters the content into an email, then the recipient gets a separate email containing a link to access the content entered by the sender. After a pre-determined period of time (typically chosen by the sender), the link will no longer work.
But, as with any new technology, there are certain benefits and pitfalls to be cognizant of before employing these tools in the workplace.
The Pros
According to a recent Wall Street Journal report, proponents of this technology believe that vanishing emails could be very useful in an era when forwarding, printing or sharing sensitive emails with unauthorized third parties is as easy as one click of a mouse or tap on a touch screen. It can also help reduce the risk of a cybersecurity breach. Email, as with other forms of online communication, has a high degree of permanence. An organization could face a public relations nightmare if years of stored emails are compromised. In theory, this technology could help prevent that scenario.
The Cons
In May, 2013, a Forbes investigation into Snapchat showed that the photos and videos don’t actually disappear from the receiver’s device. In fact, with just basic IT skills, they found the content can be retrieved long after its time limit expires. The Electronic Privacy Information Center has also filed a complaint with the FTC stating that Snapchat has been deceiving users by leading them to believe that their images are destroyed within seconds of being viewed. In a business setting, this flaw could result in sensitive information becoming easily accessible to even the most minimally-skilled hackers, which could make the firm susceptible to a major security breach.
In the financial services space, email archiving and retention are among companies’ top compliance concerns. Disappearing emails could pose a challenge in this area. So far, no direct legislation has been put in place to regulate the types of content that must be retained versus those that can be used in vanishing emails, so this is a bit of a gray area for the time being.

As developers continue to enhance this technology and regulators begin to formulate guidelines for using it in a business environment, disppearing content will likely become a hot discussion topic. Keep an eye out for more developments, and be sure to consider all of the pros and cons before deploying this technology for personal or professional use. 

Hedge Fund Security Guidebook

Photo Credit: Shuttershock

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