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Snapchat Is Putting Your Human Rights at Risk, According to Amnesty International

The organization has warned that barely any of your favorite apps offer the privacy protection they should.

by Katherine Gillespie
Oct 24 2016, 12:00am

Image via Flickr user Maurizio Pesce

It goes without saying that what happens on Snapchat, stays on Snapchat. Messaging apps are a hotbed of gossip, shade throwing, crush confessing, and meme sharing—your drunk, emoji-heavy musings should never make it out into the real world. But unfortunately, a new report from Amnesty International says that most of your favorite messaging apps are failing to adopt even the most basic privacy and encryption protections. In fact, the lack of privacy offered by popular messenger services is enough to constitute a human rights risk.

Assessing the 11 companies behind the apps found on almost everyone's smartphone, Amnesty ranked them by their ability to protect your privacy. The bare minimum was that they imposed end-to-end encryption, which makes message data unreadable to everyone but the sender and his or her recipient. Only Apple iMessage, WhatsApp, Facetime, Line, Google Duo, and Viber used end-to-end encryption as a default setting.

Meanwhile, services like Snapchat, Skype, Google Hangouts, WeChat, and Blackberry Messenger don't offer end-to-end encryption at all. Facebook Messenger and Google Allo both offer end-to-end encryption as an option, but it isn't set as a default.

As Amnesty International points out, many of these companies have stated a public commitment to maintaining the privacy of their users, but they're not upholding the basic values they espouse.

"If you think instant messaging services are private, you are in for a big surprise. The reality is that our communications are under constant threat from cyber criminals and spying by state authorities. Young people, the most prolific sharers of personal details and photos over apps like Snapchat, are especially at risk," said Sherif Elsayed-Ali, the head of Amnesty International's Technology and Human Rights Team, in a statement released alongside the report.

So why would a human rights organization care about Snapchat in the first place? Well, Amnesty International says it is particularly concerned about human rights defenders and journalists who use messenger services on their phones and computers. It says that the right to privacy and freedom of expression is an increasingly crucial issue on the global stage, and highlights the fact that use of messaging apps is increasing all over the world, including in emerging and developing countries.

"Encryption stops cyber criminals from stealing our personal information, and helps prevent unlawful government surveillance of our communications," the report reads.

"It is particularly important for human rights defenders and journalists around the world—whether they are dissidents in China, Bahraini activists in exile abroad, or investigative journalists in Europe. A breach of their data security undermines their vital work, and could result in arrest and detention."

But the findings are cause for concern even if you're not a hardcore political dissident. "Private communications on instant messaging services are under real threat from cyber criminals, malicious hackers, and unlawful interception by state authorities," the report says.

Interestingly, companies like Apple have come under fire for enabling end-to-end encryption. Governments and law enforcement agencies like the FBI argue that encryption means police cannot access the messenger data that would help them nab suspected criminals.

Apple has argued that creating a "backdoor" for government agencies to access these communications would be an extremely dangerous breach of privacy that would make the same data vulnerable to hackers.

Amnesty International—alongside other human rights groups—agrees.

Follow Kat Gillespie on Twitter.

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