Whither Privacy: Unkept Promises of Social Media Apps

Privacy is a core concern in a world where social media and mobile phone apps are the main focus for people. Sadly, most people do not realize the fact that the only privacy social media or apps leave them with is either non-existent or a miniscule amount. This is especially true for apps that target teenagers and young people specifically, such as Snapchat, Whisper, Kik Messenger, Instagram, etc. The lack of privacy and security becomes more dangerous when it concerns applications popular amongst the youth.

Take Snapchat for example. The app is marketed as a secure app for sharing self-destructing images with friends; you set a time limit for the app, ranging from 2-10 seconds, at which point it disappears and “self-destructs,” Mission Impossible style. Sounds too good to be true, right? And it is too good to be true. The reality is that the app was insecure to the point that it was hacked in a data breach in the beginning of 2014.

Over 4.5 million usernames and numbers were leaked by white hats or ethical hackers, whose goal was “to raise the public awareness around the issue, and also put public pressure on Snapchat to get this exploit fixed,” and pointed out that “Security and privacy should not be a secondary goal. Security matters as much as user experience does.” Not that Snapchat didn’t pay the price for unethical practices; in May 2014, it settled with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) over charges regarding the Snapchat guarantee to customers in terms of privacy and security. The basis for the case is quite alarming; not only was Snapchat collecting usernames and numbers without notification or consent, but they also promised privacy despite the presence and usage of third party apps that can be used to save the supposedly self-destructive images. And we do mean “supposedly” self-destructive; recent claims by forensics experts revealed that the photos are actually saved on your phone, and can be retrieved if needed. And this is the lengthier process; anyone can take a picture with a camera or camera-phone of a Snapchat picture on their mobile screen; unlike the notification you receive if someone has taken a screenshot of your Snapchat image, this act has no notification (obviously!) and you may never know who is collecting your pictures.

Similar problems plague the “secret-sharing” app Whisper; marketed as an app where people can share their secrets anonymously and find support, but one man used it to lure a 12-year-old girl into a hotel and raped her. A similar situation occurred with Kik Messenger, a texting app that allows users to send pictures and browse online while texting. Since you can share your Kik username with anyone, it is easy to befriend strangers and that’s a definite privacy and security risk, as seen in a recent case where a teen was making child pornography and blackmailing minors into sexual acts through the app.

So what, many would say, unconcerned by a mobile phone app collecting their name and cellphone numbers, or “a few” cases where the app has been misused by predators. So plenty, in a post-Snowden world; if someone is collecting your name and number in a database without your consent, it is a matter of your privacy being violated, and this is a concern that people do not take seriously. It’s a non-consensual violation, and consent is the key word here. No one should have any right to do anything to you, whether it is physical harm, abuse, or surveillance, without your explicit consent. The fact that people do not understand the significance of such violations or even see them as violations, is a victory for those that surveil, collect data, spy, and keep track of our entire lives. This complacency leads to everything conspiracy theorists would warn us against; we are passively participating in the violation of our civil rights. We at Bolo Bhi say, no more.

Any web or mobile phone app that promises security and privacy is lying. There is no such thing as a private, secure app. There are various loopholes that allow apps to exploit users and collect personal information. There are two options to proceed with; boycott using the apps altogether, or use with caution. Since the corporations have succeeded in their capitalist agenda to enslave people through addictions to social media, a mass boycott of such apps is highly unlikely. So how do you use such apps with caution? Don’t share anything you don’t want people to know about. Whether it is gossip about a mutual friend, admission of activities that may be viewed as immoral, any kind of secret, images you don’t want made public, images of a personal nature, in short, anything that is personal and private, does not belong on social media or mobile phone apps.

If you have children or minors using mobile phone apps and social media, ensure that you monitor their activity and more importantly, engage with them on the dangers of the internet. Rather than adopting the typical Pakistani parent/adult approach of bullying and “do as I say because I am older!” build a relationship on trust, so that children and minors know that whatever you say, truly is for their own good. Explain to them how they are at risk with their activities, and how they can protect themselves online. Keep track of who they are friends with online and through apps, not to pry into their private conversations with friends, but to make sure that they are not befriending strangers or anyone that you do not know.

Above all, be aware of security and privacy concerns related to such apps, and remain vigilant about future apps and websites as well. Nothing will ever be as private and secure as marketed, and we are responsible for ensuring that we remain unexploited, and our privacy remains just that; private.

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