5:47pm

Mon December 9, 2013
All Tech Considered

Teens Dig Digital Privacy, If Snapchat Is Any Indication

Originally published on Tue December 10, 2013 10:45 am

The track record of commercial products designed with privacy as a top priority has been abysmal — at least until recently. The ephemeral texting app Snapchat is turning assumptions upside down about young people and their desire for digital privacy.

Fred Cate, director of applied cybersecurity research at Indiana University, is an expert on privacy in the digital age. But when it comes to the viability of tech products that promise privacy, Cate has always been skeptical.

"We have seen so many privacy-oriented companies come and go," he says. "And I am not talking about a handful; I'm talking about hundreds of companies that offered services like, you could shop confidentially, you could ship confidentially. Not a single one has succeeded in the market."

Until now — with Snapchat.

Snapchat lets users send photos and short messages that disappear from a recipient's phone after just a few seconds. It's wildly popular, especially among teens.

"Everyone else started to communicate with Snapchat," says Sophie Varon, a high school student from Oakland, Calif., who works with Youth Radio. "So I had to get it, because everybody else was getting it."

Her Youth Radio colleague Sunday Simon has reported on why teens are taken with these ephemeral messages.

"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," Simon says.

Despite some parental paranoia, this app is not usually about sexting. Simon surveyed teens and asked them to describe their "snaps." Some of the most common responses: ugly, greasy, funny.

Snapchat simply lets kids share photos that aren't part of some permanent social media record. The app now shares more than 400 million ephemeral photos every day.

For years, the conventional wisdom was that privacy doesn't sell: It's not sexy; no one wants it; young people don't care. But Snapchat questions those assumptions.

"The people that care are ... well, kids, No. 1," says Drea London, a security consultant at digital forensics firm Stroz Friedberg.

And it makes sense: Teens are among the most heavily monitored people on the planet, when you think about how some parents treat their kids' cellphones.

But, London says, even though Snapchat might stop moms and dads from snooping through their teenagers' cellphones, their snaps won't be safe from hackers like her.

"It's great for what it is, right? Its purpose is not to share national secrets," she says. "You've got more sophisticated tools that actually advertise to a different audience."

These tools include Wickr and Silent Circle, both apps that take privacy seriously. Like Snapchat, Wickr is a free app offering messages and photos that self-destruct. But unlike with Snapchat, when London and her colleagues tried to trace conversations on Wickr, they came up completely blank — no metadata, nothing.

Thor Halvorssen, founder of the Human Rights Foundation, uses Wickr to talk to activists around the world. He says these contacts in authoritarian countries used to censor themselves out of fear that they were being watched.

"Wickr has changed a lot of this, as have some of the apps for encrypted voice," Halvorssen says.

These apps are tough to crack, even for spy agencies, because they use something called perfect forward secrecy. It's like using a really strong lock and never using the same lock twice, Wickr co-founder Robert Statica explains.

"Once you generate the key, only one message will be encrypted with that particular key," he says.

In the past couple of weeks, Twitter and Microsoft announced that they'll start using this technology too, presumably to thwart the likes of the NSA.

In a little more than a year, Wickr has been downloaded more than a million times. Still, that's nowhere near the kind of runaway success that Snapchat experienced.

Cate, with Indiana University, says Snapchat's success doesn't necessarily prove that privacy is profitable.

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

And even though Snapchat is popular, it's not profitable. Despite a recent offer from Facebook to buy the company for billions of dollars, it doesn't produce any revenue.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

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, an 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 Kate 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 offer, 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...

(SOUNDBITE OF A CAMERA SHUTTER)

HENN: ...ugly...

(SOUNDBITE OF A CAMERA SHUTTER)

HENN: ...greasy...

(SOUNDBITE OF A CAMERA SHUTTER)

HENN: ...funny...

(SOUNDBITE OF A CAMERA SHUTTER)

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF A CAMERA SHUTTER)

HENN: For years the conventional wisdom was privacy he 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 - number one because...

HENN: And they are really the some if the most heavily surveilled people on the planet when you think about how parents treat their kids' cell phones.

(LAUGHTER)

LONDON: Exactly.

HENN: While Snapchat might stop moms and dads from snooping through their teenagers' cell phones 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: Tools like Wickr and Silent Circle. These apps take privacy seriously. Like Snapchat, Wickr is a free app 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 like using a really strong lock and then never using the same lock twice. In the last couple of weeks, Twitter and Microsoft announced they'll start using this 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 its 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 that we now have a sort of sample of one.

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

Steve Henn, NPR News, Silicon Valley.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.