In just a few short years, Snapchat has evolved from its original intention as a “temporary photo sharing” platform into one of the dominant social media networks on planet Earth. It has sustained the type of growth that even larger competitors like Facebook are undoubtedly worried about and, despite the fact that its recent IPO filing left a lot to be desired, still has 300+ million monthly active users worldwide.
An estimated 100 million people log into their Snapchat accounts every day, creating about 2 million photos and videos in the process. Roughly 18 percent of all social media users spend about 25 to 30 minutes with the app every 24 hours. The company itself has raised $1.8 billion in its existence, creating a service that sees more than 10 billion video views every day.
Unfortunately, Snapchat may have also recently gotten into the “covert surveillance” game — at least as far as local law enforcement officers are concerned. The company recently announced a new “Snap Maps” feature that, while it allows you to engage with your friends using GPS information in real-time, still has privacy advocates around the world up in arms.
The Snap Maps Feature: What You Need to Know
The recent controversy began when Snapchat updated its core software to include a feature called “Snap Maps,” something that the company dubs as “a new way to explore the world.” The feature uses the GPS feature built into the vast majority of all commercially available smartphones to essentially update the user’s location every time they open it. Thanks to the power inside smartphones and the accuracy of the GPS chip, it is possible for someone to pinpoint a user’s exact location down to their specific address in just a few seconds.
The problem stems from the fact that many people, including children, use Snapchat on a regular basis. Not every user knows exactly what every feature does, and indeed, the Snap Maps feature hasn’t been widely embraced by the service’s user base just yet. Despite this, the Snap Maps feature is still essentially “working” at all times — allowing friends to track your exact location every time you open the app whether you want them to or not.
Police in Boston are already concerned about the broader implications of this feature, and it hasn’t even been commercially available for more than a few weeks at this point. In addition to the fact that children of all ages are unwittingly transmitting their locations in real-time, police officials said that they’ve already seen home burglaries, fraud cases, bullying and situations of intense domestic violence that can be directly attributed to Snap Maps.
Snapchat also courted controversy due to the nature of the Snap Maps roll-out. Exactly what the feature does isn’t necessarily clear from the “Updates” description in the iTunes and Google Play app stores. Likewise, finding the feature and making use of it isn’t the easiest task in the world thanks to Snapchat’s increasingly convoluted (and advertisement-filled) graphical user interface.
Thankfully, there IS a way to disable the GPS functionality of the Snap Maps feature — though again it isn’t something that will necessarily come natural to most people. Deep in the settings of the Snapchat map is a feature called “Ghost Mode,” which is essentially like an “Airplane Mode” designed just for Snapchat. It allows users to take photos and videos and post them like normal, only without the additional GPS information that the Snap Maps feature thrives on. This essentially renders Snap Maps useless, but considering that it’s a feature that nobody was really asking for in the first place, this shouldn’t come as a cause for alarm for most people.
Police in Boston and other areas around the country are asking parents to have conversations with their kids about the responsible use of social media. It’s also important to let kids know that if Snap Maps is enabled (as it is by default), it is actively updating their location to all of their followers whenever the app is opened — even if they’re not actively engaged with the feature itself.