By: Anna Currier
Both the Maryland Attorney General and the Federal Trade Commission recently announced settlements with Snapchat regarding the corporation’s privacy claims toward its consumers. The Federal Trade Commission proposed an agreement containing a consent order that emphasized the corporation’s false and misleading representations regarding the privacy of user “snaps” and user contact information, and directed the company toward more transparent privacy rights. The Maryland Attorney General’s settlement involved fining Snapchat $100,000 and instructed Snapchat to “not misrepresent how effective the app is in preventing users from capturing, saving and distributing user ‘snaps.’”
The Federal Trade Commission put forth a complaint on May 8, 2014 highlighting four main privacy violations that Snapchat had committed toward its consumers and which affected commerce as defined in Section 4 of the Federal Trade Commission Act. First, the FTC claimed that Snapchat falsely represented to its users that a “snap” image, when sent, would disappear forever, when in fact there were several technologically simple ways of trapping and storing the image for permanent use. Second, the FTC claimed that Snapchat sent Wi-Fi and cell- based location information from users’ mobile devices to its analytics tracking service provider, essentially tracking users locations from their phones, despite disclaimers from the company that the Snapchat application did not track user’s location information. Next, the FTC claimed that Snapchat failed to securely design its “Find Friends” feature, a feature that instructs the user to enter the number that will be associated with that user’s account. As a result of the user entering their number, all of the user’s contact’s names and numbers could be accessed by the application, even though Snapchat represented by implication that the only user information being collected was the number of the application user himself.  Finally, the FTC claimed that because of the faulty design of the “Find Friends” feature, a user could enter a phone number that belonged to another consumer, allowing the user to send and receive snaps associated with that other consumer’s phone number.
The proposed consent order between the FTC and Snapchat was put forth on May 14, 2014 and laid out specific orders for Snapchat to create a comprehensive privacy program that strengthened user’s security and privacy interests. Notably, Snapchat did not admit to any violations of federal law as set out in the Complaint; the Consent Order was solely for settlement purposes. Specifically, the FTC ordered Snapchat to create a comprehensive privacy program that is “reasonably designed to address privacy risks related to the development and management of new and existing products and services for consumers, and protect the privacy and confidentiality of [consumer] information . . .” The FTC specifically requested that the prosed privacy program be formally reviewed and inspected periodically not just by the FTC but by an objective, independent third-party professional.  This consent order, although a federal settlement agreement rather than a judicial ruling, established important boundaries a modern corporation like Snapchat must conform to in order to protect its user’s personal information stored within the legally confusing confines of a cellphone. On a more basic level, the FTC points out the need for transparency in a corporation’s representations about a user’s privacy interests. Such stringent but reasonable standards set forth in the FTC consent order provide a baseline for other emerging and existing tech companies to follow. It is easier than ever for applications such as Snapchat to violate and probe user security interests simply by having the user agree to use that company’s services; stricter guidelines and third party review by a professional removed from the corporation can ensure less privacy infringements.
 Snapchat, Inc. Proposed Consent Agreement, File No. 132 3078 (F.T.C. May 14, 2014).
 Michael Loatman, FTC, Maryland Settle with Snapchat Over Privacy Claims, Social Media Law Blog (June 13, 2014), https://www.bna.com/ftc-maryland-settle-b17179891311/.
 Snapchat, Inc. Complaint, File No. 132 3078 (F.T.C. May 8, 2014).
 Id. at 4.
 Id. at 5.
 Id. at 5-6.
 Id. at 7-8.
 Snapchat, Inc. Proposed Consent Agreement, File No. 132 3078.
 Id. at 3.
 Id. at 4-5.