If New Jersey Governor Chris Christie's staff had used Snapchat to send messages to close traffic lanes on the George Washington Bridge last September, would this scandal have gone undetected?
As Quentin Fottrell writes in MarketWatch, it's an interesting idea. If aides had used the app to send messages that vanish after a few seconds, there wouldn't be those incriminating e-mails and texts to subpoena. The New Jersey governor's deputy chief of staff, Bridget Anne Kelly, and his close political adviser, Bill Stepien, might still have their jobs. Teens and sexters have discovered the apparent freedom of the ephemeral post: Are politicians next?
The rise of Snapchat and other services that promise anonymity and security are tempting tools for those seeking privacy on the Web. According to Pew, 86 percent of U.S. Internet users have taken steps to mask their online footprints. Google and Yahoo! now offer tools to encrypt e-mail. Another service, Silent Circle, offers encrypted phone calls, texts and video-call services. Snapchat's growth is evidence of this trend: The service each day processes more than 400 million self-destructing photo and video messages, called "snaps," and Facebook recently tried to buy the company for $3 billion.
These private channels could make illegal and potentially scandalous behavior easier to get away with. Yet these tools may not be a foolproof way to conceal improper action.
Social networks have to comply with court orders if they are subpoenaed, under the Electronic Communications Privacy Act. According to Snapchat, only unopened snaps are stored on its servers, and only for 30 days. But recently, Snapchat's security has been questioned. A group of researchers (Snapchat called them "hackers") exposed a weakness in its system that let them access usernames and telephone numbers of 4.6 million Snapchat users. Recipients of messages have always been able to screenshot the "snaps," alerting the sender; now there are hacks that allow users to save images without notifying the sender. Others question whether Snapchat keeps data on all images in some form.
Consider also the fate of Lavabit, the secure e-mail service said to have been used by national-security leaker Edward Snowden. Facing legal pressure from the government to reveal data on the company's servers, its founder, Ladar Levison, instead shut it down.
But as weaknesses in "secure" services are revealed, other technologies arise with promises to offer encryption and privacy protection. Wickr, an app that encrypts text, image, audio and video messages, states on its website that "anonymous communications is important to our political and social discourse."
It appears politicians and their staffs haven't caught on to using these private channels. Considering the public-relations disasters over indecent tweets and this latest case of unfortunate e-mails and texts, it's possible they might be tempted. This would raise a tricky dilemma: What would it say if the people running our government turn to secure privacy tools to get around government requests for data? Here's another idea: Just don't post the incriminating message to begin with.
(Kirsten Salyer is social media editor for Bloomberg View. Follow her on Twitter.)