A new study raises significant concerns about Snapchat’s Snap Map app, finding that the company’s reassurances ring hollow.

Such apps offer attractive features, but underneath the cute design, there’s also a lot of surveillance going on.

Social mass surveillance

In a world where countless social media services fight for our attention, Snapchat managed to firmly establish itself as one of the big boys. Translated into 20 languages, Snapchat boasts over 160 million users who on average, open the app almost 20 times a day. It’s already grown into a huge project. But like other big social media, Snapchat also raises privacy concerns — especially regarding its new Snap Map feature.

In June 2017, a new Snapchat feature was revealed, allowing users to share their real-time location with their friends. You can also view snaps from people close to you or see heat maps of users, it’s quite an interesting app. But not everyone loved it. Many users considered it to be a stalker heaven and child protection groups have vocally protested against it. Snapchat tried to assure its users that they “routinely work with law enforcement” but, as a new study has shown, this just opens the doors for mass surveillance. Dr. Neil Thurman of City, University of London and LMU Munich, says that Snapchat routinely gives user data away to advertisers and other third parties, which, among others, has allowed law enforcement agencies to spy on innocent citizens, such as legitimate protesters and trade union members.

But as bad as Snap Map is, it’s just one of a range of apps that do more or less the same thing.

“Snap Map is just one of a range of apps that allows social network users to be monitored without their knowledge and with pin-point accuracy,” says Thurman . “Indeed some of these apps far exceed Snap Map in their surveillance capabilities, and are able to track individuals over time and across multiple social networks.”

‘Stalker-esque’ apps

In his latest study, Thurman looked at a range of these apps, including Echosec, Dataminr, Picodash, and SAM. While Snapchat’s Snap Map is aimed at a general audience (and has the broadest user base), other apps are more niched, tailored for professionals such as journalists or security forces. Since many times, the ones picking up on the data from these apps are other apps, your data can propagate insanely fast, which adds even more concern. Truth be told, some of them can use the data to provide a useful service. For instance, Dataminr, claims to have delivered alerts on shootings and explosions “ahead of major news reports”, allowing “emergency responders to act quickly to protect the public.” More often, apps would use the data for customer engaging and reporting (ie telling a restaurant owner when his business is locally mentioned).

“Social media networks’ reassurances over surveillance ring hollow because, as my study shows, they are selling our data in the knowledge that it is being used by third parties for a wide range of other purposes, including location monitoring.”

However, public backlash is starting to become a factor. An app called Geofeedia was called out for its practices, and due to the negative publicity, social networks refused to provide the information pipeline and this ultimately led to its demise. So public awareness and reaction are very important. People should be aware of how their data is being used.

“One of the apps my report describes, Geofeedia, was used by hundreds of law enforcement agencies, promoted as giving the police the power to ‘monitor’ – via social media – trade union members, protesters, and activist groups, who the company described as being an ‘overt threat’”, said Dr Thurman.

Journal Reference: Neil Thurman — Social Media, Surveillance, and News Work. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/21670811.2017.1345318