Snapchat under fire following photo leak

Snapchat could be in hot water with federal regulators after private images and videos from as many as 200,000 people were posted online.

The widely popular photo-sharing service has denied that it was hacked and has instead blamed the release on outside companies that users rely on to store their photos.

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But the smartphone application is under new pressure from privacy advocates just months after it settled with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) over charges it misled consumers about its data collection, and only weeks after an unrelated leak of hundreds of celebrities’ nude photos.

“The FTC should open an investigation to determine whether the company has breached the consent order,” Marc Rotenberg, president of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said in an email to The Hill.

“Separately, the Commission should also determine whether the company’s lax security practices allowed the breach and was therefore also an unfair and deceptive business practice,” he added. Rotenberg said the FTC is authorized to crack down on such behavior.

The photos and videos of Snapchat users were allegedly stolen from Snapsaved, a service that allowed people to store unopened Snapchat photos — which otherwise disappear in a matter of seconds after being viewed — without the senders’ knowledge.

Many were released on the online message board 4Chan, and the leak seems to be modeled on this summer’s release of nude pictures of actress Jennifer Lawrence, model Kate Upton and dozens of other celebrities.

The photos had reportedly been collected over several years and included multiple images of underage users. Snapchat is incredibly popular among teenagers.

Over the weekend, Snapsaved claimed that it had been hacked.

“As soon as we discovered the breach in our systems, we immediately deleted the entire website and the database associated with it,” an unnamed spokesman wrote on Facebook. “We did not wish to cause SnapChat or their users any harm, we only wished to provide a unique service.”

Still, the leak could lead to more trouble for Snapchat, which is reportedly worth nearly $10 billion.

Earlier this year, Snapchat settled charges with the Federal Trade Commission, which alleged that the company deceived users about its service.

While the company promised that people’s photos and videos would “disappear forever,” the FTC noted that the images could often be stored by using a third-party company much like Snapsaved. Snapchat also stored unencrypted copies of sent videos on users’ devices and collected and shared their location data, the FTC alleged.

In the May consent order, the FTC specifically noted that recipients of images “can instead simply use a third-party application to download and save both photo and video messages.”

A Snapchat spokesman said that it expressly prohibits the use of outside companies in its terms of service and has actively tried to shut them down.

“Snapchatters were victimized by their use of third-party apps to send and receive Snaps, a practice that we expressly prohibit in our Terms of Use precisely because they compromise our users’ security,” the spokesman said in a statement shared with The Hill, using the company’s term for video or picture messages.

“We vigilantly monitor the iTunes App Store and Google Play for illegal third-party apps and have succeeded in getting dozens of these removed,” they added.

But for some critics, that's not enough.

Amie Stepanovich, senior policy counsel with the digital rights group Access, said that the group should have made it technically impossible for a service like Snapsaved to exist.

“I'm so relieved that Snapchat's [terms of service] prohibits this practice. What about having proper data security to prevent it?!” she wrote on Twitter.

Rotenberg, with the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said that the leaked photos put the FTC on the spot to enforce its five month-old order.

“The Commission’s willingness to enforce the consent order with Snapchat is a test of whether the agency is able to protect Internet privacy,” he said.

An FTC spokesman was not able to provide a comment about the agency’s oversight of Snapchat.