Privacy & Security


The question has been raised for years: Is privacy dead in the 21st century? That's partly because privacy doesn't seem to sell. Many products designed with privacy in mind have been commercial failures. Well, here's an exception: the app called Snapchat. NPR's Steve Henn reports it's turning assumptions about young people and their desire for digital privacy, upside down.

STEVE HENN, BYLINE: For the better part of a decade, I've been calling up Fred Cate to talk about privacy in the digital age. More often than not, when I call him, I'll ask him about some digital product or another that's pitching privacy to consumers. And Cate is always...

FRED CATE: Totally skeptical, yes.

HENN: Fred Cate is the director of Applied Cybersecurity Research at Indiana University, and he's skeptical.

CATE: Mainly because we've seen so many privacy-oriented companies come and go, and I'm not talking about a handful. I'm talking about hundreds of companies that offered, you know, services like you could shop confidentially, you could ship confidentially; and not a single one has succeeded in the market.

HENN: Until now. Snapchat. Snapchat is a wildly popular service that lets you send photos and messages that disappear from a recipient's phone after just a few seconds.

SOPHIE VERONE: Everybody else started to communicate with Snapchat, and so I had to get it because everybody else was getting it; and then it was interesting.

HENN: Sophie Verone(ph) is a high school student from Oakland who works with Youth Radio. Her Youth Radio colleague Sunday Simon has reported on why teens are taken with these ephemeral messages.

SUNDAY SIMON: If you put it on Snapchat and it goes away, that was the purpose. You didn't want it to be permanent. You didn't want it to stick.

HENN: Despite many parents' paranoia, this is not about sexting. Take a message she got from her friend Kya(ph).

SIMON: She sent me of - one of her friends named Chelsea(ph) and she has the red eye. And she's like, oh, Chelsea's a demon. Ooh. You're evil.

HENN: Sunday Simon surveyed teens, and asked them to describe their snaps. Some of the most common descriptors were...


HENN: ...ugly...


HENN: ...greasy...


HENN: ...funny...


HENN: Snapchat lets kids share photos that aren't part of some permanent social media performance. And Snapchat now shares more than 400 million of these ephemeral photos every day.


HENN: For years, the conventional wisdom was privacy doesn't sell - it's not sexy, no one wants it. Young people don't care. Snapchat sort of gives lie to all of that. Drea London is a digital forensic analyst at Stroz Friedberg.

DREA LONDON: The people that care are the people that have, you know - well, kids, No. 1, because...

HENN: They're really some of the most heavily surveilled people on the planet, when you think about how parents treat their kids' cellphones.

LONDON: (Laughter) Exactly.

HENN: While Snapchat might stop some moms and dads from snooping through their teenagers' cellphones effectively, Drea London says your Snaps won't be safe from hackers like her.

LONDON: No, definitely not. I mean, it's great for what it is, right? Its purpose is not to share national secrets. You know, you've got the more sophisticated tools that actually advertise to a different audience.

HENN: These are tools like Wickr and Silent Circle. These apps take privacy seriously. Like Snapchat, Wickr is a free app which offers messages and photos that self-destruct. But when London and her colleagues tried to trace conversations on Wickr, they came up completely blank - no data, no metadata, nothing.

Thor Halverson, at the Human Rights Foundation, uses Wickr to talk to activists all around the world. He says his contacts in authoritarian countries used to censor themselves, out of fear they were being watched.

THOR HALVERSON: Wicker has changed a lot of this, as have some of the apps for encrypted voice.

HENN: The best of these apps are tough to crack - even for spy agencies - because they use something called perfect forward secrecy. Robert Statica is Wickr's co-founder.

ROBERT STATICA: Once you generate the key, only one message will be encrypted with that particular key.

HENN: It's kind of like using a really strong lock, and then never using the same lock twice. In the last couple of weeks, Twitter and Microsoft have announced they'll start using the same technology too, in hopes of thwarting the likes of the NSA.

While Wickr hasn't had the same kind of runaway success that Snapchat's experienced, in a little more than a year it's been downloaded more than a million times. Nonetheless, Fred Cate - at Indiana University - says Snapchat's success doesn't prove that privacy is going to be profitable.

CATE: Nothing would make me happier than to think that privacy was gaining traction in the marketplace. The problem, of course, is we now have a sort of sample of one.

HENN: And even though Snapchat is popular, it's not making money. Despite the fact that Facebook offered to buy it for billions, the company doesn't produce any revenue.

Steve Henn, NPR News, Silicon Valley.


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