Snap Map – Snapchat’s latest offer and a potential privacy threat

Snapchat first burst into public consciousness six years ago as the ‘sexting app’ with messages that self-destructed after a specified number of seconds.

Contentious, yes, but since then Snapchat has grown into a large social network in its own right. It has over 300 active million monthly users, of which 70% are female and 71% are under 34 years old.

If your teenager has a smartphone, they’ll almost certainly be on there.

Snapchat is popular because of the ephemeral nature of images and videos, its array of overlays and geo-filters (allowing you to change how you look and showcase where you are), the ability to access ‘Stories’ from people in your community and well targeted branded content.

Now its latest offer is Snap Map – a new feature that allows users to show other users where they are and what they’re doing on a world map. 

In Snap's own words: “We've built a whole new way to explore the world! See what's happening, find your friends, and get inspired to go on an adventure!”

While it sounds just another fun way to share activities and location, without the right settings enabled and a full understanding of what this means, there are privacy issues that it’s worth spending time to get up to speed with.

How it works

The first thing to know is that Snap Map is an opt-in feature which lets users share their location publicly or with select friends only.

A so-called Ghostmode allows people to appear on the map without being seen by anyone else. You can choose this when setting Snap Map up or change your mode while viewing the Map by clicking on Settings in the upper right hand corner.

Heat modes show where lots of snaps are being taken, for example at a big music event or tourist destination. If you choose to add your Snap to ‘Our Story’, Snapchat says whatever you see (if amazing enough) could be added to the Map – a strong incentive to share publicly.

Users appear on the map as a cartoon avatar, described by Snapchat as an Actionmoji and their location is updated every time they open the app. If they don’t open the app for a while, after eight hours the Actionmoji fades from view and precise location data is deleted.

Where the issues lie

What users and their parents may not realize is that every time the app is opened, their location is broadcast to everyone on their friends list. The update doesn’t solely happen when the person’s focus is on the Map. The individual only needs to answer one Snap (message from a friend via the platform), post a Snap or check out what their friends are doing for their movements to be tracked and published.

Through this, it’s possible to identify where the user is, for example home, or what they’re doing, e.g. swimming at the local leisure centre.  Location sharing comes with a huge risk.

It also makes it easy to see what others in a community are doing - potentially upsetting for someone if their friends are together and they weren’t invited.

Cyberstalking is nothing new; controversy surrounded location-based social networking website Foursquare in 2010.

Advice from the UK Safer Internet Centre is clear: "It is important to be careful about who you share your location with, as it can allow people to build up a picture of where you live, go to school and spend your time.

"Given how specific this new feature is on Snapchat - giving your location to a precise pinpoint on a map - we would encourage users not to share their location, especially with people they don’t know in person."

The opportunity

In terms of public relations and marketing, there are always opportunities around location-based services and it will be interesting to see what the response to Snap Map is, bearing in mind the initial concerns around personal safety.

However what it also offers is a chance to sit down with your children, especially teens, to understand the platform fully and explain the risks attached so it can be used safely and in an age appropriate way. Internet safety talks should remain a regular part of family life.