Snapchat is a photo messaging application available for Apple and Android smartphones. Users take photographs and videos, which can be annotated and sent to other users.

But unlike other photo-sharing apps like Instagram, each ‘Snap’ has a life expectancy of between 1 and 10 seconds, after which they disappear.

Stanford University alumni Evan Spiegel and Bobby Murphy came up with the idea. They wanted to create a way of sharing photographs that wasn’t permanent, enabling users to bypass social media-related problems such as detagging and deleting photographs before a job interview.

Snapchat has five million daily users who share 200 million snaps a day.  The majority are based in the US and much of its user base is teenagers.

 

What happens to the Snaps?

Snapchat isn’t without controversy. Although Snaps are supposed to self-destruct, it is possible to take a screenshot of a snap in the few seconds it’s on screen. 

The issue of sexting (sending explicit messages via text message), has come to the forefront more and more recently. There have been concerns that the service can be used for exchanging sexts by its young audience. 

In Canada, CTV News reported that 10 boys aged between the ages of 10 and 14 faced child pornography charges after tricking seven girls into posing for photographs, which they captured using their phones’ screenshot functions, before sharing them at school.

It was also reported that Snapchat photos do not disappear entirely and can be retrieved from mobile devices with some hacking. A log of 200 shots is retained on the company’s servers, but the photographs themselves are not.

 

Is Snapchat secure?

Australian-based Gibson Security published two warnings about Snapchat’s security vulnerabilities in August and December 2013 after discovering hackers could match phone numbers to user names and build up a database of users.

Snapchat failed to respond to the first warning, finally responding after the second.

In December Snapchat was hacked and the phone numbers and redacted names of 4.6 million Snapchat users were published on SnapchatDB.info.

The hackers explained their reasons to technology website TechCrunch. “Our main goal is to raise awareness of how reckless many internet companies are with user information. It is a secondary goal for them, and that should not be the case,” they said.

The majority of those affected were based in America and users have been advised to delete their accounts.

 

What does the future hold for Snapchat?

In November Snapchat allegedly declined a $3 billion (£1.8 billion) cash acquisition offer from Facebook and a $4 billion (£2.4 billion) bid from Google – huge sums of money.

If Spiegel and Murphy were holding out for an even higher offer, Snapchat’s response to Gibson Security’s warnings may not have helped. Christopher Soghbian, principal technologies with the American Civil Liberties Union, said the company “demonstrated a cavalier attitude about privacy and security”.

It’s highly unlikely bigger, more established companies like Facebook, Google or Yahoo would have responded in such a blasé way.

Snapchat’s user base is mostly made up of teens, many of whom may not be overly bothered about online security. But their parents may be.

Snapchat has since announced an update to the app, tightening security.