How Snapchat and Other Apps Invade You and Your Contacts Privacy

Submitted by co60ca on Wed, 06/29/2016 - 14:27

With regards to free apps or web services it become commonly known that `if you are not the customer you are product` but in recent years the sale and collection of personal information has become more aggressive. The topic of discussion for this article is Snapchat and the ramification of the gathering of personal information and it's affect on not only your privacy but others privacy you are in contact with.

It begins with consent. When you signup to a website such as or you have some idea of the kind of personal information that you're providing to these companies and they generally have a consensus that just about anything can be done with this data. In both of these sites however, by signing up to these sites you've given consent to store this data, with your email, phone number and password are required to authenticate. on the other hand allows you to access their service with minimal data but many users go further to include things like their birthday to complete their profile and get more out of the service. Again, these parts are optional. asks for you for your real name and several other pieces of personal information as seen below on their signup screen.

For those who are skilled information security, this article may not be news for you, but you are not the target audience however I value your views

Image removed. requires significantly less information to signup and does not have real name policies. Even recent attempts to capture birthday information has received negative attention from privacy advocates.

Now onto Snapchat; the notion of Snapchat is once the always gets the older generation to say "oh I know what that's for" whenever I introduce them to the app. It was initially meant to be a private way to share photo's from one user to another without allowing the receiving user to save the image, however simple and complex ways around the restriction have created a market of their own with all the "Snapsave" style apps on the market. Speaking of which Snapchat is currently the 7th most popular free app on the Google Play store.

Image removed.

Snapchat lets you find your friends a few way, including: Add by Username, Add from Address Book, Add by Snapcode (which is a fancy proprietary QR code style reader), or Add Nearby which would leverage location services.

Image removed.

Now lets say you were privacy conscience, you might think, "wow Add Nearby seems to be a massive invasion of my private location," and you'd be right. Snapchat of course covers this in their privacy policy and it is shown in the app permissions when you install the app. But the problem with privacy you might not notice on this screen is the "Add from Address Book." Snapchat accesses your contacts in order to display them on this entry. They also send them to the remote Snapchat servers. Now wait, you might be saying "how can you have a problem with this, since Snapchat needs to access your contacts in order to add someone if they don't have your contacts?" Simple of course. Google and the Android open source project (AOSP) provides `implicit intents` which allows an app to request any provider available for a particular piece of data. For example: CATEGORY_APP_CONTACTS which provides a interface to select your friend that you want to add. And this could add them from other apps that provide contacts, not only your contact book. Now this doesn't let you view all your friends to see which ones are on Snapchat and which are not, but you really shouldn't be blind siding your friends with app request anyway. (See Facebook and Farmville.) Snapchat had the option to use this but they instead chose to roll their own implementation for whichever reason.

Now you might say "Well just don't use it?" Well there are two problems with that; the first is that even if you don't use it, your friends will likely use it to find you or others. Maybe your friends already know you're sick of Farmville requests and would prefer to stick this one out. Sounds good in theory, except everyone who allows Snapchat to read their contacts invariably allows Snapchat to read their contacts without the contacts explicit permission. When we talked about Facebook and Twitter before I mentioned how a user consents to these services. But in the case of Snapchat, the sheer act of being friends or even contacts with a person, unknowingly whom uses Snapchat allows Snapchat to have your personal information. Normally if a stranger asked for your mothers contact information you wouldn't provide it to them without a good reason for it. But with Snapchat you don't even get the option to make that decision. This is about informed consent, and it's not just you anymore, it is the hundreds of people in your contacts list.

Okay, so they're invading the privacy of you and your contacts. Now at least we know when they are doing it right? You enter the Add Friends from Address Book and it reads your contacts to display them to you so you can select each friend. No. Bringing us to our second point instead of accessing your contacts when you access the menu option Snapchat instead accesses your contacts each and every time you open the app, it also appears to sometimes read your contacts list if you put the app into the background then reawaken it. I will prove this by providing screenshots from my Android device, running Cyanogenmod's Privacy Guard. This app allows you to revoke access to personal information which I'll get into more later. Below are the steps used to show the attempted access.

Image removed.Image removed.Image removed.

Okay, so Snapchat is accessing your contacts on startup rather then when needed, what else is Snapchat doing that might be unethical? Well perhaps the "Filters" option in Snapchat is more telling of the value of your privacy. As seen below; Snapchat has an option to get certain filters, from simple colour corrections to silly things like rainbow barf. Sounds kinda fun right? Wait...

Image removed.

Oh, so I need to provide GPS location to you in order to use some extra gismos in your app. Seems like an unreasonable trade-off. Trading my 24/7 location, and quite a bit of battery usage for some gizmo even when the app isn't open. The Snapchat Privacy Policy mentions "with your consent collect information from your device's phonebook and photos." But also mentions "We do this so that we can connect you to your friends quickly [...] and for any other purpose described in this privacy policy." They go on later to mention they "[...] may share information about you with business partners[...]". The also mention you can opt-out if your device supports blocking access to contact-data and other such services (like mine) or by deleting the app. However deleting the app leaves your account and there is no advertised way to delete the account that would be intuitive to users. So if deleting opts you out, how does Snapchat know to delete the contact information they have already gathered? Easy answer, chances are they don't, or not all of it anyway. Let us remember that Snapchat already had a data breach late 2013. So how could you trust this to not occur again? Even if you delete your account there is no guarantee that your data would be deleted. We can take a look at the Ashley Madison breach and see that user data wasn't fully deleted at the users request anyway. Not only is it fashionable to sell user data when a company decides to sell assets or goes bankrupt, Snapchat actually mentions that they may do this in their Privacy Policy (good on them.) So remember, even although Snapchat has a Privacy Policy that can change at any time with you, that doesn't mean the company that buys their data will. The company that purchases your data has free legal reign in the name of capitalism. This is a reminder that the best way to keep your customer information safe is to not collect it.

You'll note the red text in the image. That's due to my device having filters on who can access location data. As mentioned before Privacy Guard is very helpful, if you select a certain option any app the is installed has several settings enabled by default for your privacy. The options such as Location and Read contacts and will prompt you to ask if you wish to deny or allow on requests. I'd highly recommend anyone with technical knowledge to install Cyanogenmod's to use Privacy Guard. It let's you use the apps you want while controlling the PI touch locations (Personal Information) that organizations have access to. This is also a problem, Cyanogenmod's like the AOSP project is open source. So Google and the AOSP project could use the source code in their project. Luckily Android Marshmallow sports a new feature which allows app permissions to be revoked at any time. This is a great alternative to those who are not savvy enough to install custom firmware like Cyanogenmod. But OEM provides of cellphones refuse to update the software on their phones, likely to increase their own sales of new phones for people who think the OS version is a selling feature. So persons with old phones miss out on these features.

Returning to the data retention that Snapchat does remember that Snapchat has Snapchat which allows you to "pay your friends." I'll let this twitter user explain this concept to those who may not understand the situation.

Image removed.

That data by the way, based on their Privacy Policy is retained and can be used as they see fit. At this point try and remember that this data is retained and can be used as they see fit [sic], and there is no way for sure you know they delete this if you delete your Snapchat account. ITRC identified 606 data breaches this year (as of 2015-10-13) in which 175,492,082 records were exposed, and those are the numbers they can account for.

Now, I will remind anyone reading this that Snapchat is not the only offender to this problem of abusing data collection and retention. Nearly any app in the top list of apps abuse their access to your data and request app permissions in order to data mine your personal information rather then adding value to the user. So if you think I'm picking on Snapchat that's just not true, the Twitter app for Android, and Facebook and Facebook Messenger apps allegedly request contact data and location at weird, inappropriate times. The Twitter app is again, significantly better then Facebook. This is just a reminder that you really should care and value your own personal privacy like you would if someone was pointing a telescope in your windows, not treating it like a fact of life.