The reputation of Snapchat as an "ephemeral" photo messaging service took another blow Monday, when the app let it be known that it can — and will — share your snaps and (newly introduced) "stories" with the cops. There are two conditions, though: The snaps can't have been opened by the recipient yet, and law enforcement needs to have a warrant. And while 350 million snaps are now sent every day, Snapchat has turned over unopened snaps to law enforcement "about a dozen times," since May 2013, according to a company blog post.
When it comes to the cops however, "unopened" is the key word here, as Snapchat's Micah Schaffer explains. "Snaps are deleted from our servers after they are opened by their recipients," he writes in the blog post. Snapchat stories — sets of daily snaps that can be viewed by designated recipients repeatedly for a whole day — are a different story. "Unlike unopened snaps, which are stored until viewed or for 30 days if not opened, snaps that have been added to your stories are deleted from our servers after 24 hours."
So unless snaps featured in stories are deleted by the recipient, those images will hang out on the server for 24 hours even after they've been viewed. And if the images are on the server, law enforcement can request a look. What's more, says Snapchat, if law enforcement doesn't yet have a warrant, the company may be legally compelled keep unopened snaps and 24-hour stories on the server past their expiration date, until a warrant can be obtained.
All of this is in keeping with the federal law called the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA), which "obliges us to produce the snaps to the requesting law enforcement agency," Schaffer writes. What's more, all of this is in keeping with a common-sense law which applies to all social media: Don't post, pic or share anything you don't want your mom to see at your trial.