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'Snapchat' app raises online privacy concerns

January 3, 2013 12:00:00 AM PST
There's a new cellphone app called "Snapchat" that's catching fire with teenagers. It lets users share snapshots with friends that are programmed to vanish within seconds. Some parents are concerned about the new app.

Text messages and photos that disappear with no evidence left behind can be an alluring promise to some teens. But computer experts say that may be an empty promise, leaving some young adults in some compromising situations when all too much evidence makes its way onto the Web.

There's a reason it's called the worldwide "web." It's too easy these days to get caught in it. From misfired messages to sex tapes leaked online, it's not just celebrities, and it's not just on computers.

Smartphone apps like Snapchat promise to destroy your text and photo messages once the person you sent them to sees them. It's made Snapchat a popular app all around the world. In fact, since it debuted in July, Snapchat has shared more than a billion snaps globally.

Each day more than 20 million Snapchats are exchanged. Some of them are embarrassing, others are compromising, and still others are explicit.

And while many users may believe all evidence of those messages vanishes, experts say may not be the case.

"There's a lot of misunderstanding about how risky the Internet is. People put a lot of data on there, don't protect it appropriately, believe in guarantees that aren't there," said Terry Benzel, a cyber security expert at the University of Southern California.

Benzel is assistant director for special projects at the Information Sciences Institute at USC. She says Snapchat users need to realize that there are ways to copy sensitive messages and photos.

"The simplest: brute force, just take a picture of a picture off your phone," said Benzel. "But then it's also fairly easy to be able to download that picture onto a connected device. Anything I take a picture of I have to be conscious that it's going to show up somewhere else."

Computer experts say there are several programs that promise to self-destruct messages and that none is 100-percent reliable. They say the same about programs that promise anonymity.