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The Government Wants To See Your Snaps -- And Snapchat Is Letting Them

Snapchat's first-ever transparency report reveals how much user info lands in government hands.

When Snapchat first came out, the ephemeral nature of the posts seemed like a digital revolution of some sort. For once, you could blast something out into the digital universe, and it would be gone without a trace.

That dream was soon shattered, of course, thanks to the screencap loophole and rumblings about Snapchat's data logs. For a while, it was unclear what exactly Snapchat was saving and what it was sharing with third parties, including governments. But now the company has released its first Transparency Report, revealing the exact amount of information it has shared with world governments.

The report covers the period from November 1, 2014 through February 28 of this year and sets out to "explore government requests we have received for users’ account information, government demands to remove users’ content and requests to takedown content for alleged copyright violations."

In total, Snapchat received 403 government requests for user information (375 from the U.S. government, 28 international). The company claims it produced information for 92% of the U.S. requests and 21% of the international requests.

And just what are these requests comprised of? Government authorities generally sought user information based on "account identifiers" they provide to Snapchat, such as "username, email address, phone number, etc." — basically, details that are unique to an account.

The form of the request — subpoenas, search warrants, court orders, etc. — determines the type of data that Snapchat is legally bound to share. For instance, a subpoena can get authorities subscriber information. A search warrant has a higher legal threshold, so those are required for any request that includes actual message content, according to the Snapchat law enforcement guide. (As an interesting example of the process in action, Motherboard points out Snapchat information has already been used in a murder case and a child pornography investigation.)

While 92% seems like an overwhelming compliance rate, keep in mind that this is not a case of government snooping or eavesdropping. These information requests are made through valid legal channels that people and organizations are legally bound to comply with. As Snapchat puts it in the guide, the company is "committed to assisting law enforcement investigations as the law requires."

The silver lining for anyone paranoid about privacy concerns is that 92% also means that the government didn't get all the information it asked for. Plus, out of the millions of interactions on the app, only a few hundred instances have been subject to government search, a tiny fraction of the data.

That said, Snapchat's user base is growing, and the law enforcement guide is very clear in stating Snapchat "retains logs of previous messages sent and received," so the archive of data is growing as well — and we now know that sometimes involves snap content. As that pile of information grows, and as governments get better at utilizing Snapchat data, then we're likely to see more requests for information.

Snapchat plans to release these reports twice a year to give users a better understanding of what's being requested and shared, so at least trends will emerge. Increases in requests or compliance will be readily apparent to any users worried about potential privacy infringements.