Snapchat is one of the fastest growing social media apps in the world. The photo-sharing service is actually beating out Twitter for participation among the 12 to 24 year old age group.
But the photos aren’t as temporary as users might think and new technology is making it easier for anyone to preserve the images.
Snapchat users send 400 million snaps a day and some of them are from Lucas Peterson.
"It's just one more way to keep connected with people," Peterson said.
The 21-year-old from Sioux Falls regularly snaps a pic, adds a quick note and sends the image off to multiple friends at a time.
Once the time is up, the image self destructs from the app. While Peterson uses Snapchat to send silly pictures or brag with vacation pics, the app's perceived privacy has earned a reputation for easy sexting among users.
"They're able to go out of their comfort zone, knowing that someone can only see it for three seconds at a time," Peterson said.
When a screen shot is taken of an image, the app automatically notifies the sender. But what many users don't know: the images shared don't necessarily disappear in 10 seconds or less.
"It is a little concerning that they are still there," Dakota State University's Ashely Podhradsky said.
Podhradsky recently researched the not-so-secret Snapchat app.
The digital forensic investigator says images and video sent and received through Snapchat are saved on the device's hard drive and can be found in the file directory.
"Both technical and non-technical people can find the image on the phone," Podhradsky said.
Last month, Snapchat settled with the Federal Trade Commission over charges that it deceived customers about the disappearing nature of messages.
The FTC says Snapchat misled users by failing to disclose that others could save the messages without the sender's knowledge.
First, when users looked for old photos, they had to know what to search for. But now, new third-party apps make it easy to access stored photos or even save incoming images.
"How much effort you want to put into recovering it is a question," Podhradsky said. "If it is something unimportant and small and goofy that's fine. But if you broke the law and had proof of that or are sexting and something was illegal, then they are going to spend the resources to recover those images."
The less-private side of Snapchat isn't surprising to Peterson, who says his friend stumbled upon Snapchat images when looking through a smartphone.
"Every time you put something out there, it will stay out there and always be out there," Peterson said. "You just got to be careful what you do out there on the internet or social media."
While Peterson says the social media app is only going to get more popular, Podhradsky warns users need to be aware of the dangers.
The FTC also accused Snapchat of collecting users' contacts without telling them or asking permission, as well as the location of Android users.
Snapchat agreed to settle without admitting or denying wrongdoing. The company has addressed many of the issues raised by the FTC.
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