Making “temporary” content online harder than it looks for Snapchat, Facebook

Buzzfeed posted an excellent story Thursday night debunking yet again the popularly-held assumption that content sent on Snapchat, and to a lesser degree, Facebook’s Poke, always disappears once it’s sent from user to user. The news might come as no surprise to more tech-savvy people, but for the many teenagers using the apps, it’s a healthy reminder what everyone in the digital age will eventually learn: you can never really make anything disappear from the internet, and that includes supposedly temporary content sent via mobile phones.

The Buzzfeed story showed how videos sent on Snapchat are stored locally on the recipient’s phone and can be viewed with a simple file browser without ever notifying the sender. The same is true with videos sent on Poke, although Facebook told Buzzfeed it was working on a fix:

“Of course, the average user of Snapchat or Poke isn’t going to use this method to save videos. However, users should be aware that their data on services like Snapchat and Poke isn’t as private as they think it might be. And a few motivated users will certainly take advantage of the loophole that’ll let them save the kind of videos that were never intended to last more than a few seconds.”

And the idea that Snapchat or Poke ever kept your photos from being widely shared always seemed a little silly to begin with. Notifying you that someone took a screenshot of your photo just alerts you that the photo is going to be saved — the feature does nothing to prevent anyone from taking those screenshots. It just creates a vague sense of mutually assured destruction between the two users. And of course you can always take a video or photo of another receiver’s screen without the sender ever knowing, and presumably really bright users will find other ways to save the content they want to save — it’s just a matter of time and persistence.

CEO and co-founder Evan Spiegel did not reply to a request for comment on this story, but told Buzzfeed: “The people who most enjoy using Snapchat are those who embrace the spirit and intent of the service. There will always be ways to reverse engineer technology products — but that spoils the fun!”

And in an interview earlier this month, he told me he knows they can’t stop the most dedicated users from copying content if they really try: “We don’t want to get into an arms race with really clever people. Which is why we’re not advocating ourselves as a secure platform. We’re not for like, CIA documents.”

But for young teenagers potentially sending explicit photos — or even just goofy pictures they don’t want posted for all eternity on Facebook — that distinction might not mean very much, especially in an age of digital bullying and less leeway for online mistakes. So maybe the quicker everyone realizes that anything on a smartphone can become public, no matter the marketing perceptions these apps create, the better.