Snapchat staff accused of 'data access abuse'

May 24, 2019 | 10:28

Tags: #bobby-murphy #chat #data-access-abuse #data-breach #even-spiegel #picture-messaging #private-messaging #reggie-brown #snaplion

Companies: #snapchat

Multiple anonymous sources have come forward with claims that Snapchat employees have been spying on the service's users, exposing the existence of an internal surveillance tool dubbed SnapLion.

Created by developers Evan Spiegel, Bobby Murphy, and Reggie Brown in 2011, one of the primary selling points of the Snapchat app is privacy: Picture messages sent via the service are viewable only for a limited period, after which they are automatically deleted. Sadly, the reality wasn't quite what the company had promised: In 2014 its creators, already reeling from a data breach a year earlier which had leaked 4.6 million usernames and telephone numbers, were forced to settle with the US Federal Trade Commission over claims it was 'misrepresenting the extent to which it maintains the privacy, security, or confidentiality of users' information.' Spiegel himself courted controversy in 2015 by claiming that his company was not looking to 'expand into poor countries like India and Spain' as the application is 'only for rich people.'

Now, though, the company may be facing its biggest public relations disaster yet: Claims by multiple sources that its staff have been spying on users' messages, many of which - in keeping with the supposed privacy functionality - are explicit in nature.

The sources came forward to Vice, which cites additional evidence including 'a cache of internal company emails' which details internal tools through which staff could and did access users data including location information, saved messages, phone numbers, and email addresses.

'One of the internal tools that can access user data is called SnapLion, according to multiple sources and the emails. The tool was originally used to gather information on users in response to valid law enforcement requests, such as a court order or subpoena, two former employees said. Both of the sources said SnapLion is a play on words with the common acronym for law enforcement officer LEO, with one of them adding it is a reference to the cartoon character Leo the Lion,' the site claims. 'Snap's "Spam and Abuse" team has access, according to one of the former employees, and a current employee suggested the tool is used to combat bullying or harassment on the platform by other users. An internal Snap email obtained by Motherboard says a department called "Customer Ops" has access to SnapLion. Security staff also have access, according to the current employee. The existence of this tool has not been previously reported.'

The site's sources claim knowledge of multiple instances of 'data access abuse,' though failed to detail exactly how private data was accessed. 'Protecting privacy is paramount at Snap,' the company claims in a response to Vice. 'We keep very little user data, and we have robust policies and controls to limit internal access to the data we do have. Unauthorised access of any kind is a clear violation of the company's standards of business conduct and, if detected, results in immediate termination.'

The full article is available now on Vice Motherboard.

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