Snapchat Hacked: Building a 10 Billion-Dollar Business on Exploitation of Underage Youth

by Shanley Kane on October 14th, 2014

Trigger warning: cyber sexual assault.

In May 2014, the Federal Trade Commission announced it had settled charges against Snapchat. The charges stated Snapchat “made multiple misrepresentations to consumers about its product that stood in stark contrast to how the app actually worked.” The report indicated that Snapchat lied repeatedly about the privacy and security capabilities of its platform. As part of the settlement, the FTC announced that Snapchat would be under independent monitoring for the next 20 years.

In August 2014, just a few months later, Snapchat was valued at 10 billion dollars and VC firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers invested ~$20 million as the app reported over 100 million monthly users, at least half of them between the ages of 13 and 17.

Now, tens of thousands of Snapchat photos have been hacked and are being distributed by known terrorist hate group 4chan.

These things are related.

Now, Snapchat is eager to distance itself from the hacks, blaming a third party app that leveraged Snapchat interfaces. What Snapchat won’t acknowledge is that:

1. its interfaces are so poorly secured that an entire ecosystem compromising the safety and consent of every single one of its users has flourished as Snapchat continues to mislead its users about the app’s privacy capabilities.

2. The FTC complaint in May 2014 SPECIFICALLY AND EXPLICITLY CALLED OUT the exact vulnerability implicated in the newly-divulged hacks, noting: “Because the service’s deletion feature only functions in the official Snapchat app, recipients can use these widely available third-party apps to view and save snaps indefinitely. Indeed, such third-party apps have been downloaded millions of times. Despite a security researcher warning the company about this possibility… Snapchat continued to misrepresent that the sender controls how long a recipient can view a snap.”

There are multiple issues that should be of grave concern to the technology community in light of these events:

  • Why was this company, mere months after receiving a damning FTC report proving that it lied repeatedly and deliberately to its users about its core, no, ONLY functionality, given a $10 billion valuation and invested in by a top Silicon Valley venture firm, making its founders actual billionaires?
  • It is indisputable that Snapchat’s multi-billion dollar empire is directly based on its ability to capture the unpaid emotional labor of underage children. Snapchat’s valuation is largely based on its success with teens, many of whom use the service to express their sexuality through various methods including sending “explicit” messages and taking and sharing photos of their bodies. Considering many social networks are driven largely by the social labor of women, we can assume that the unpaid emotional labor of underage girls has disproportionately contributed to Snapchat’s success.
  • Despite this population of youth being its most important audience, Snapchat has repeatedly deemed it irrelevant to protect. Instead, Snapchat lied to and exploited this population. Beyond taking no steps to protect this user base from attacks (either by peers or hackers), Snapchat (a company of adults) actively lied to this base (of underage children), lulling them into a false sense of security that coerced their sexual and emotional expression on a fundamentally unsafe platform.
  • Young girls are disproportionately targeted by cyber sexual assault which is directly enabled by Snapchat. This most vulnerable population in particular has been deliberately targeted and endangered by Snapchat as a growth market. By facilitating cyber sexual assault through manipulation, endangerment and coercion of underage users, Snapchat is complicit in underage cyber sexual assault. Victims of cyber sexual assault face severe trauma, criminalization, social ostracism and isolation, depression and even suicide.

We are left with hard questions.

Why is violating the principles of informed consent profitable instead of punishable for Silicon Valley tech companies?

What are our responsibilities to underage users of the services that are making us rich?

What are the consequences for deliberately endangering and profiteering off the manipulation of children?


Why are companies that are proven liars, abusers and exploiters continually rewarded with venture capital instead of being shut down?