The recent revelation that Snapchat photos don’t disappear when they’re deleted from phones has renewed online privacy concerns for many. The photos, which are supposed to disappear from the user’s phone and Snapchat’s servers after no more than ten seconds, actually remain hidden on the phone, according to Richard Hickman of Decipher Forensics. Forbes writer Kashmir Hill reported on this discovery last week.
Hickman, who made the discovery this year, says that finding the supposedly deleted Snapchat photos is as easy as downloading data from the phones with forensics software, and removing the “.NoMedia” file extension from the photos. Hickman revealed his techniques to local television station KSL as well as publishing them on the Decipher Forensics website. He says the company has already used this technique to retrieve photo evidence useful in missing person and divorce cases. Decipher Forensics has retrieved as many as 70 Snapchats which, it turns out, were not deleted after all.
Snapchat confirms Hickman’s findings. In a May 9 blog post, the service laid out its practices regarding the storing and deletion of Snapchat images, called snaps. The blog post warns Snapchat users that it’s possible to hack devices to access unopened snaps, a process that’s been described in detail on Buzzfeed. Snapchat also warns users that “it’s sometimes possible to retrieve data after it has been deleted” and that users should maybe keep this in mind and avoid sharing any incriminating or embarrassing information or images.
It isn't altogether surprising to learn that Snapchat photos can be resurrected from the data graveyard. Any information conveyed electronically, whether through a picture-messaging service like Snapchat or over regular old email, can be captured via screenshot or by taking a picture of the screen. When you delete a file on your computer or on another device, the file isn’t destroyed right away. Instead, you’re just prevented from accessing it again (which, in this case, is the purpose of the “.NoMedia” file extensions mentioned above). The computer or device will, over time, overwrite the deleted file with new information, but that’s got to do with efficient use of data storage space rather than any calculated function intended to protect your privacy.
Given the ephemeral, impermanent appearance of the data we share each day, we can be forgiven for treating that data as though it simply melts away, never to return. But, no matter how fleeting electronic data may seem, it doesn’t do to forget that it does, in fact, have a tendency to linger – and there is, of course, no guarantee of privacy, especially with privacy standards slipping across the Web. Even our most private online exchanges are anything but – as Claire Swire discovered when, over ten years ago, her paramour Bradley Chait shared a sexually explicit email with his friends, only to have that email go public and become one of the first examples of what can happen when you share indiscriminately online. The data cloud is a public space. Before you click post or hit send, ask yourself, “Do I want some blogger to mention this in 13 years?”