Is the fear of Snap Map justified?

Snap Map could mean the location of young users is shared with ‘friends’ they don’t know

‘Snapchat said users can choose exactly who they want to share their location with, if at all, and can change that setting at any time.’

‘Snapchat said users can choose exactly who they want to share their location with, if at all, and can change that setting at any time.’

 

Some would say Snapchat has been having a rough time of it lately. Last week saw shares of parent company Snap Inc plummet by more than 16 per cent with a reported loss of $443 million (€377m ) in the second quarter. But these kinds of financial results are not all that unusual in the fickle world of social networking platforms where overvaluation and slowing user-growth are par for the course.

The bigger issue for Snapchat right now is widespread privacy concerns related to a recently-added location sharing feature known as Snap Map.

“Snap Map has attracted a lot of media attention as the location-based aspect means that a user can choose to share their location with others. Because there are so many young people using the app this potential sharing is a cause for concern for parents and carers in particular,” says Karl Hopwood, helpline co-ordinator at Better Internet for Kids (BIK), an EU-wide programme designed to educate parents and children on safe internet use.

Snap Map allows a user to share their location in real time with other Snapchat friends, meaning it is possible for others to see where you are at any given time with street-level accuracy.

Given that Snapchat’s largest demographic is 18- to 24-year-olds and the minimum age for creating an account is 13, Snap Map could potentially put younger users in a situation where their location is unwittingly shared with “friends” they don’t know in person or putting them at risk of stalking or bullying. Consequently, Snap Map has been criticised by many as “dangerous” and “creepy”.

Settings

The new feature received extensive media coverage, including a warning from the Preston police force in the UK that it “automatically [unless activated ghost mode] shows where you are on a map to anyone who is on your friends list and posts can possibly be seen publicly depending on your settings!!” Scary, if it were actually true.

In fairness to Snapchat, this feature is opt-in. You cannot accidentally or automatically begin sharing your location with all and sundry; the user must choose one of three settings: Ghost Mode (no-one can see your location), My Friends (everyone you are friends with can see your location), or Select Friends (you can choose a trusted few to see where you are on the map).

And your location is not tracked in the background: you must be using Snapchat to update your location.

The fear is that 13-year-olds will not understand the ramifications of sharing their location with friends, and Hopwood says that education is key. “As with many similar apps, care is needed when using specific features, and it is important for users, including children and young people, to have an understanding of what they are doing and how to make use of privacy and other settings.

“Unfortunately, with so many younger users time is often not spent considering aspects of privacy, so parents and educators have a role to play in this.”

Completely optional

A Snapchat spokesperson said in a statement to The Irish Times: “The safety of our community is very important to us, and we want to make sure that all Snapchatters, parents and educators have accurate information about how the Snap Map works.

“With Snap Map, location-sharing is off by default for all users and is completely optional.

“Snapchatters can choose exactly who they want to share their location with, if at all, and can change that setting at any time.

“It’s also not possible to share your location with someone who isn’t already your friend on Snapchat, and the majority of interactions on Snapchat take place between close friends.”

This is good to know, but it is also important to consider how young people view concepts like friends and privacy. A 2015 study from Pew Internet Research found that 57 per cent of US teenagers have made a new friend through online-only. Notably 77 per cent said they had never actually met these friends in real life.

There is always a risk, as we continue to use social media, that we accumulate and forget about these online friends – and forget about the extent of access we give them to our personal details on any social networking site.

“Many young people know about the dangers [of sharing personal information] but think that it does not apply to them. Young people do need to be more aware of some of the risks and challenges when they go online – they do, however, need to be given some credit as many of them do not want to be sharing personal information such as location with people they don’t actually know, and some will take steps to prevent this,” says Hopwood.

However, he notes that privacy settings can be quite complex on some of the social media platforms, and teenagers may need to be prompted and reminded about taking the right precautions.

Please Rob Me

However, these concerns over Snap Map and location-sharing are nothing new. Seven years ago people had the same worries about Foursquare (now Swarm), an app originally designed for the exclusive purpose of sharing your location with your network of friends. And unlike Snapchat, Foursquare could link to Twitter, allowing users to publicly share where they checked in.

To highlight danger around this, three Dutch tech professionals – Frank Groeneveld, Barry Borsboom and Boy van Amstel – created a website called Please Rob Me. This website pulled in publicly-available location-sharing data from Twitter to demonstrate how easy is was for anyone to see where an individual was and use this information for nefarious purposes.

At the time the trio wrote: “The issue with location-based information is that it exposes another layer of personal information that, frankly, we haven’t had to think much about: our exact physical location at anytime, anywhere.

“If you’re comfortable being a human homing beacon, that’s fine, we just want you to be fully aware of what that means and the potential risks it might involve.”

You might wonder why this has resurfaced as an issue, and why Snapchat even wanted to add a geolocation layer to their app. Jack Brody, lead product engineer for Snap Map, has been quoted as saying that user-activity inspired the new feature: “Interestingly, one of the habits we’ve seen with our users is that they’ll take a snap where they are, put on the geofilter, and post it to their story with a caption like ‘hit me up’. They’re basically saying come hang out with me here. Then when they leave there they’ll delete that from their story.”

Smartphones

The difference between Foursquare in 2010 and Snap Maps in 2017 is the ubiquity of smartphones and the widespread and heavy use of social media amongst teenagers. The conversation needs to move away from the Snapchat fixation and on to a wider awareness around data privacy on social media across the board for children, young people, and their guardians.

“As with any particular social media platform Snapchat can be used in the wrong way – this is about behaviour rather than technology. We need to ensure that young people are empowered to take control when they use some of these amazing apps and platforms,” says Hopwood.

“Used in the right way these apps can be so useful. Indeed, some parents have commented that they are able to feel confident using the Snap Map application so that they know where their children are at all times.”

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