Will Snapchat’s new Terms of Service really affect its users?

As Snapchat reveals its new controversial privacy policy worldwide, Caoimhe Gordon investigates whether the worrying revelations will have an effect on dedicated users of the app.


While wandering through campus on a breezy autumnal afternoon, here is a brief summation of what can be heard all around: the crunch of leaves underfoot, the laughter of friends ready to learn, the whispering of a cool breeze through the trees and several key phrases that, several years ago, would have made as much sense to the common Irish student as they now do to the older generations. Phrases such as “Did you see his story?” or “Why did you screenshot my snap?” pepper our conversations more than ever before.

An app that was once an outlet to send your best double chin selfie has grown into one of students’ most used tools of communication. With a messaging feature and “Live” Stories that offer us a glimpse into what the tycoons at Snapchat believe is the daily life of a vibrant, hip and happening city around the world, Snapchat has become an unstoppable force in the conglomerate of social networks, with an estimated value of between $10-20 billion dollars. With over 100 million users around the world, the young people of Ireland have followed the world-wide trend with over 84% of 15-18 year olds and 35% of 25-34 years old possessing an account, according to a survey from Ipsos MRBI. According to Snapchat themselves, in May 2014 the app’s users were sending 700 million photos and videos per day.

As this week begins, it is likely that you know exactly what that girl that used to be in your year back in the day dressed up as or where the slightly annoying group in your course went for the night, all thanks to their incredibly loud, long and most likely irritating Snapchat stories. However, it is much less likely that you are aware of the change in Snapchat’s privacy policy. A quick message to a lively WhatsApp group of avid Snapchat users confirmed that they were not aware of the new set of privacy and legal policies. Like many others among us, the chore of having to accept a new set of Terms and Conditions prove a barrier to immediately accessing the exciting world of 10 second pictures of people having fun without you. With a quick push of “Accept” and an exaggerated eye roll, the new policies are accepted, the blasé and unclear description of the changes are barely read and the whole affair is forgotten about without a second thought.

So what are these changes? Will they really affect you in the future? A fellow student, upon discovering about the changes to the Terms of Service, feared that his lifelong dream to someday reign as Ireland’s president would be hindered by the lack of privacy that Snapchat has deigned to provide. Perhaps that was a dramatic assumption but here are the basics.

The bottom line is that users of the app “grant Snapchat a worldwide, perpetual, royalty-free, sublicensable, and transferable license to host, store, use, display, reproduce, modify, adapt, edit, publish, create derivative works from, publicly perform, broadcast, distribute, syndicate, promote, exhibit, and publicly display that content in any form and in any and all media or distribution methods (now known or later developed).” It must be said that Snapchat’s legal team have opted to insert lot of verbs for one sentence.

The new privacy policy, which must be accepted to access the new update, does not immediately make all the literature about the changes available to read to users. Instead, user must take the initiative to locate the page themselves. Among the facts laid out in the new document, it states that Snapchat shall be able to “access, review, screen, and delete” content shared in the app “for any reason.” It adds that Snapchat can “publicly display that content in any form,” including with its “business partners.” Many students can recall the determination and later, disgust when their quest to be featured in the Dublin Live Story a few weeks failed. However, according to Snapchat, the eagerness to have a photo or video broadcasted across the globe is taken as an invitation for their data to be stored. Snapchat explains that offering content in this way results in “unrestricted, worldwide, perpetual right and license to use your name, likeness, and voice in any and all media and distribution channels.” Snapchat Discover, the stories provided by other companies such as MTV, Vice and Sky News also have access to data from their viewers, including age demographics and number of viewers.

Another section of the privacy policy that caused consternation among its readers featured under the heading “Information We Collect from Third Parties.” Snapchat explains that if one of your Snapchat contacts allows the app to access their phone contacts and if you are a part of their mobile phonebook, Snapchat “may combine the information [they] collect from the user’s phonebook with other information [they] have collected about you.” Further information that will be collected when using Snapchat include device information, such as web browser type and language, IP address, access times and online sites that have been visited before switching promptly to view an incoming Snap. However, according to TechInsider, this information including “pages you visited before navigating to our services” refers to its own website, not your normal web browsing behavior elsewhere.” At least you can sleep a little easier tonight knowing that your embarrassing Google searches remain safely unknown- for now.

However, much of Snapchat’s policy to storing users’ information has not drastically altered in the last privacy policy update. Up until this point, all saved messages between users, photos and videos uploaded on “My Story” and transactions using Snapcash (cash transfer service currently only active in the United States) are stored in the Snapchat servers. Imagine all the Snapchat story clips of people screaming from the back of a rickshaw that are being kept in a random server stateside.

For an app whose focus is on the self-destructing image, it may seem a tad strange that all these data is being stored. However, Snapchat is not the only social media service to reveal such a controversial Terms of Service. Instagram and Facebook share similar data sharing measures. However Facebook limits this to content that has been shared to a Public audience. Much of the message from tech commentators online is that Snapchat now has the licence to do what they wish with whatever you decide to share. Actor Kal Penn, the former White House Associate Director of Public Engagement described the Terms of Service as “scary stuff”.

Social media breaches are growing ever common, with hacks to the Snapchat services happening in both 2013 and 2014. The iCloud celebrity photograph hack of 2014 also led to more public appearance of the often fragile natures of online security systems. This is further confirmed by the 2013 revelation by Facebook that a technical glitch, discovered a year after its first occurrence, allowed the email addresses and phone numbers of over 6 million account holders to be accessible to unauthorised viewers.

When asked about their reaction to the changes in Terms of Service, the shock was almost palpable through the WhatsApp group. Many questions were asked, many emojis of dismay were shared. Many wondered how they had managed to miss the revelation of such a shocking document. However, soon the topic changed, the conversation processed. It is clear that these changes, although initially frightening, will not stop young people from using Snapchat. It will not prevent them from putting up stories of their travels in a foreign land with added sticker to confirm their location. It will not end the questioning of what the emojis beside people’s names mean after all this time. Although many mobile phone users feel that the inclusion of a passcode in order to gain access to the private photographs and messages stored on the phone is privacy enough, it is clear that this is not the case. In this day and age, a clear profile of our preferences and activities on the other side of the computer screen can easily be formed. How often have you browsed for clothes online and noted an advertisement with the exact item you were perusing pop up on the side of your Facebook newsfeed?

Furthermore our lives are no longer simply being recorded by third parties. Nowadays, it is a common conundrum whether or not to feign ignorance when meeting an acquaintance. Is it worth revealing you don’t really need to ask what they are up to? Often the Instagram has been explored, the profile picture liked and the details are stored safely in our very own servers- our brains.

Such controversial changes in Terms of Service for social media networks, such as Snapchat, are likely to continue. However, what may be considered to be certain is our disdain to these changes will continue to fade. The importance of staying in the loop and keeping up with friends and family close by and further away has become a bigger concern than the storage of our data alongside the data of millions of others by a service that seems very far away. Although it may seem alarming that obliviousness may be replaced by indifference, it is likely that the online takeover will continue unabated. Big Brother may not always be watching but it is clear that just about everybody else is.