Snapchat is today looking to clarify exactly how and when law enforcement agencies can access your "self-destructing" messages. According to a new blog post from Micah Schaffer, who handles matters pertaining to trust and safety at the company, Snapchat can only retrieve snaps that are unopened. Once a message has been viewed by its intended recipient, Schaffer says it's permanently deleted from Snapchat's Google-hosted cloud service. But unopened snaps are different; they can be manually fetched by the company in response to certain law enforcement requests — and only such requests.
"Do we manually retrieve and look at snaps under ordinary circumstances? No," Schaffer writes. "If we receive a search warrant from law enforcement for the contents of snaps and those snaps are still on our servers, a federal law called the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) obliges us to produce the snaps to the requesting law enforcement agency." Schaffer says that the company has received "about a dozen" of these warrants since May 2013, and immediately looks to hammer home just how small that number is. "That’s out of 350 million snaps sent every day." Snaps that have been added to Stories are automatically deleted after 24 hours, but during that timeframe can be reviewed by the company for terms of service violations.
According to Schaffer, only two employees at Snapchat can access this retrieval tool: himself and co-founder / CTO Bobby Murphy. Snapchat certainly isn't alone in its requirement to bend to law enforcement, but now more than ever it should be obvious that your snaps aren't immune to snooping, particularly if your friends are tardy when it comes to opening them.