Can Snapchat Avoid Facebook’s Privacy Mistakes?

A Snapchat story appears on a user’s Tinder profile. Photo: Snapchat

Earlier this month at a partner summit, Snapchat announced a number of new features: new scripted and unscripted original programming, new virtual lenses to put over your face, and games you can play with your Bitmoji avatar. But looming over the slew of neat announcements and product enhancements — as it has loomed over Snap for years — was Facebook, the privacy-scandal-ridden behemoth that has eaten into Snapchat’s popularity by aggressively copying most of its features.

The most interesting new addition though was one called App Stories, an addition to the platform’s developer toolkit that allows users “to share content right from the Snapchat camera to a Story inside another app.” In other words, other apps (currently limited to Tinder, Houseparty, and AdventureAide) can now pull content from your Snapchat story. The idea makes sense: Historically, Snapchat has been focused on privacy, and made it difficult for developers to feed content into, or extract content from, the app. But that also means that it could not leverage third-party developers to help Snapchat grow. Facebook, on the other hand, allowed developers extensive access to its own platform and to build apps harnessing Facebook user data, and grew significantly as a result.

You might remember how that turned out for Facebook. Just over a year ago, the company was rocked by the Cambridge Analytica scandal. It was revealed that a developer, Aleksandr Kogan, had built an app on Facebook’s platform — an innocuous personality quiz — and used that app to harvest the personal information of tens of millions of users. He then kept that data, in violation of Facebook’s platform policies, and sold it to the political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica. The most uncomfortable truth about the whole thing is that it revealed not a glitch in Facebook’s system, but instead showed it working exactly as intended. Facebook’s developer tools were made specifically for this sort of usage: letting third parties access Facebook data in exchange for them feeding yet more data about those users back to Facebook.

In a post–Cambridge Analytica world, the announcement of a platform like Snapchat’s App Stories poses questions about privacy that most people didn’t know to ask until recently. Apps like Tinder can now access data from Snapchat, and unlike Facebook data like your name and those of your friends, the things you post on Snapchat are meant to be temporary. What, then, is to stop another developer from doing what Kogan did: harvesting sensitive data and doing whatever they want with it after it leaves Snapchat’s walled garden? You can’t just ask developers to play by the rules and assume they will. Facebook learned that the hard way.

For one thing, Snapchat says it isn’t leaving the door wide open like Facebook did. A spokesperson for Snap said that its developer platform doesn’t share demographic information or a user’s friends list with third parties, and connected apps that aren’t used for 90 days are automatically disconnected (a similar control was added to Facebook last year after the scandal blew up).

Snap also said that Story posts deleted from Snapchat’s main app will also be deleted on apps the Story has been shared with automatically. Stories are also encrypted, and when one is deleted, the encryption keys for that story are also deleted as well, making it difficult for someone to access those files after they expire. The other part of this is that Snap is requiring partners to implement robust server-to-server communication with Snapchat, which means that a service like Tinder has to account for Snapchat Story deletion or a user unlinking their two accounts. Snap clarified that third-party apps are not caching content on their own servers, but always retrieving the content from Snapchat itself.

Snap also emphasized that it has a limited number of partners and isn’t just handing the keys to the kingdom to any developer who wants them (Houseparty and Tinder probably have beef with Facebook too, given Facebook’s introduction of group video chat and dating features recently). That’s probably a good call, given what happened with Cambridge Analytica. Still, App Stories represents a compromise for Snapchat that might have seemed unthinkable a year or two ago — the privacy-focused app is opening up its platform even just a little bit, in the hopes that it can fight back against Facebook and Instagram, even if it means letting some data out into the wild.

Can Snapchat Avoid Facebook’s Privacy Mistakes?