Here-today-gone-in-10-seconds photo-sharing app Snapchat has been doing its best to dig itself a shallow grave, with a series of pretty significant problems for an app built to appeal to privacy-lovers. In January, a hacker published a list of millions of Snapchat’s users and their phone numbers. Last month, the FTC revealed that it had pursued a legal complaint against the company for security problems and lying about user’s photos disappearing — they do in fact stick around. Then last week, Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel, 23, was regretting that his college emails didn’t come with a self-destruct option when Valleywag published them, revealing that Spiegel just a few short years ago was using very crude language to refer to the ladies who inspired he and his friends to build an app for safer sexting. Rough year! It may have gotten rougher this week, when Apple AAPL +1.14% announced it’s entering the self-destructing marketplace. In iOS8, Macheads will be able to send photos, videos and audio messages Mission Impossible-style.
Apple is not the first tech giant to come at Snapchat. After Facebook’sreported $3-billion-dollar offer to Snapchat got rebuffed, Mark Zuckerbergoffered Facebook users a Snapchat clone called Poke, but it never took off. Part of its problem (beyond it’s terrible name) was that Facebook’s private messaging was not very popular to begin with, which is likely part of the reason why it purchased WhatsApp, an app people actually like using to send one-on-one private messages. Apple is in a very different position from Facebook. Apple iMessaging is already popular and Apple has taken Snapchat’s ‘ephemeral’ business model and turned it into a feature.
An obvious advantage for Snapchat is that it is device-agnostic while iMakeItDisappear will be limited to iDevices. Only 25% of the American population has an iPhone according to Pew. iPhone ownership though is higher among the younger demographic who may be more likely to use a feature like this. According to Pew, among 18-24 year olds, 31% have iPhones and 43% have Android, while among the 25-34 set, the split is 34% iPhone and 40% Android. If nothing else, it’s a reason for Macheads to start dating their own kind.
Regardless, a tech giant like Apple incorporating the deletion feature (in the same week that tech giant Google GOOGLE -0.17% released an End-to-End encryption Chrome extension to make Gmail more private) is a sign that privacy enhancement is catching on as a business trend. Do these giants entering the space lift the tide for all privacy players or threaten them? Snapchat is far from the only company trying to turn privacy into a money maker. Wickr, SilentCircle, and Glimpse are but a few of the start-ups duking it out in this space. I asked them what they thought of Google and Apple wading in in a big way.
Wickr created a self-destruction app two years ago that promises better security that Snapchat. “It’s not intimidating,” says Wickr chief technology officer Robert Statica. “It’s reassuring that Google and Apple are copying us and our technology. It means that we’re doing the right thing.”
While no one has played around with Apple’s iDestruction feature yet, Statica thinks it will be similar to Snapchat in erasing the image from the app but not from the phone’s memory so it can still be recovered forensically. “It’s a validator for us, but our technology is better,” says Wickr CEO Nico Sell.
Elissa Shevinsky, the founder of another photo deletion app Glimpse, voiced a similar sentiment. “It’s awesome that ephemerality is catching on, but companies like Apple are hindered by legacy apps and legacy code,” she says by email. ” We have the advantage of being able to create a fully ephemeral experience, building exactly what younger users want right now.”
SilentCircle, meanwhile, is an encrypted messaging app that’s targeting the same people Google is with its End-to-End Chrome extension — which makes a message appear as gibberish until it reaches its destination, so that it can’t be intercepted or read while in transit. “ All in all, we are cheering about this,” says Silent Circle CEO Mike Janke by email. “It is a very positive sign of how the world is starting to demand privacy.”
But he called the offerings from Google and Apple “only cosmetic in nature.” “For instance, Apple doesn’t claim that the messages actually expire -in fact they don’t,” he writes. “It is still on Apple’s servers for any warrant and they are still on your phone’s flash drive. Same as Snapchat, it is not secure and it doesn’t really disappear. What Google is doing is also very cool. However, it doesn’t stop Google from decrypting and reading your emails with a Bot, in fact it might even do that before you encrypt it.”
Google for its part says that won’t happen and that it won’t place contextual ads on encrypted email.
The privacy space is heating up, and it’s not just small start-ups offering innovative ways to protect data anymore. Soon “threat profile” may be as en vogue a term as encryption and ephemerality, if consumers start thinking hard about who exactly they want to protect their data from — and then choose their providers accordingly.
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