The premise of Snapchat is a relatively simple one; you send pictures or videos to one, or more of your Snapchat followers for no real purpose other than a bit of fun. Selfies, scenery, someone falling over, anything. The beauty of Snapchat, as anyone above the age of 14 and below 22 knows, is that once the photos and videos have been viewed for a certain amount of time (that you determine) they’re gone, forever, never to be seen by man nor machine ever again.
Increasingly, Snapchat is becoming a means for entertainment for fans of celebrities, famous users include Ryan Seacrest, Miley Cyrus and Robert Pattinson, but also as a way for keeping up to date with current affairs. NowThis, an online news website, provides up to date news coverage for their followers, whilst Snapchat themselves have introduced a feature called Our Story, which provides a behind the scenes look at large events including the Golden Globes and the Superbowl. If you take all this into account, and combine an estimated 30 million monthly users, a number that hasn’t stopped growing since the launch, you get all the signs of a harmless social media site that has the potential to be the next big thing.
So why then has the application attracted so much media attention in the past weeks? Well, sparked by the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, David Cameron has all but guaranteed the loss of the super-cool youth vote by threatening to ban everyone’s favourite method of sending selfies with exaggerated double chins. In a statement made last week, Cameron advocated a crackdown on forms of communications and messaging services that can’t be read by the security services, even if they have a warrant.
It’s not just Snapchat that’s under threat: any messaging platform that uses encryption will face being blocked in the UK. So it would be goodbye to iMessage and FaceTime, WhatsApp (no more 3,000-message-long groups consisting exclusively of messages asking whereabouts in the LCR your friends are) and Snapchat’s cultured cousin, Vine.
In the press conference, Cameron said: “Are we going to allow a means of communications which it simply isn’t possible to read?”. Like a true pioneer of representative democracy, answered the question for himself: “My answer to that question is: no, we must not”. Thanks for asking, mate. He went on to argue that apps like WhatsApp and Snapchat were being used by terror cells as a means for secure communications.
Coming in the wake of the attacks on the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris, it’s very easy to get caught up in a hysteria about the threat from terrorism and, for me personally at least, anything that can be done that has even the remotest chance of preventing an act of terror is worthwhile. But blocking WhatsApp, Snapchat and the rest of the gang is the wrong call. Yes, terrorists may well use these applications, but so do I along with another 417 million people worldwide. So do you, all for entirely innocent purposes. My mum uses WhatsApp to check that I, as a 19-year-old human, have remembered to brush my teeth (although typically sends them to my dad instead). Terrorists undoubtedly use SMS messages, so do we ban texts? No. Heck, they probably call each other, so let’s just ban phones.
You have to understand that encryption is not just about keeping your terror plans away from pesky GCHQ; it’s there to keep your personal information secure. Names, addresses, bank details: all are protected by encryption. These encrypted messaging services aren’t online communities for terrorists and no-gooders, they offer people a private and secure way to communicate in a variety of different forms: text, pictures and video. If the government do away with these forms of messaging, then they’ll have blatantly eroded away an integral right of society; free speech. Which would be ironic, given that it was only a few weeks ago that David Cameron defended the importance and value of free speech in a visit to Paris in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo shootings.