A smartphone app touted as a safe way to exchange naked pictures and saucy texts poses a huge privacy risk.
Snapchat is available for both iPhone and Android devices, and is marketed towards teenagers and young adults. The app lets senders control how long a message or picture can be viewed, before it expires after a maximum of 10 seconds.
The idea is that a picture is only visible for 10 seconds - limiting the opportunity for others to forward it around the school campus, or (worse) upload it to Facebook or an image sharing site.
The problem is that this doesn't stop anyone receiving a message taking a screenshot of their device and creating their own copy of the image, providing they are nimble fingered enough. The Snapchat app offers a warning if someone takes a screenshot, but not a way to stop this happening. Even this limited safeguard can be circumvented, warns net security firm Sophos.
"There are 'how-to' guidelines online explaining how jailbroken iPhones can subvert Snapchat, and take snapshots without informing the image's sender," explains Graham Cluley, senior technology consultant at Sophos.
"A less high-tech method to grab the image is to simply take a photograph of the phone that has just received the nude photo. And then there's no way the Snapchat app can tell you if that's happened," he added.
"Although we attempt to delete image data as soon as possible after the message is transmitted, we cannot guarantee that the message contents will be deleted in every case. For example, users may take a picture of the message contents with another imaging device or capture a screenshot of the message contents on the device screen. Consequently, we are not able to guarantee that your messaging data will be deleted in all instances. Messages, therefore, are sent at the risk of the user."
Snapchat, which received a 12+ rating from Apple for "Infrequent/Mild Sexual Content or Nudity", is ahead of Instagram and only behind YouTube in the list of top free photography apps in Apple's online store. The firm claims its iOS version alone has been used to shared over 1 billion photos ("snaps").
US child safety online Mary Kay Hoal has also expressed concerns that youngsters might be fooled into thinking that Snapchat is a safe way to share nude and inappropriate photographs of themselves.
Despite these well intentioned warnings it's unlikely that young people will stop sharing intimate photos of themselves over the internet anytime soon. Parasite porn sites are stealing and spreading such images and videos, according to recent research by the Internet Watch Foundation. In one very sad case, Amanda Todd was bullied so badly about images of her that were shared online that she eventually took her own life.
"Sharing a naked photo of yourself with someone via the internet is putting yourself at dangerous risk of embarrassment, humiliation or serious bullying," Cluley concludes.
"Young people who adopt Snapchat shouldn't fall into a false sense of security that it's somehow a safe way to share naked pictures with their friends," he added. ®