The departed, Sgt. Tyrone Hassel III, was ambushed as he attempted to enter his vehicle on New Year’s Eve, 2018. Kemia Hassel and her lover, Jeremy Cuellar, were both stationed with the U.S. Army in South Korea, where they had an affair and began to plot the details of Tyrone’s murder. The couple conducted their planning using the message application Snapchat, believing that their messages would not be discoverable by law enforcement given the nature of the app.
I have and use Snapchat because I have young children who use it and want me to use it as well. Snapchat is, of course, for all ages; however, it is more prevalent among the younger generations. If you have heard of programs with which a user can generate messages that are automatically deleted after a specific period of time, then you are already aware of the driving concept behind the Snapchat application.
Snapchat enables a sender to transmit messages and/or photo files to a destination where, once opened by the reader, they will delete themselves at an expiration time value set by the sender. Ten seconds is a typical setting in Snapchat. What is the appeal of such a feature? I can venture no real altruistic benefit of such a feature, but I can tell you why it is all the rage currently.
Sexting is practiced primarily by teens. They exchange sexually explicit and graphic messages and photos—usually selfies. The adoption of Snapchat for this purpose was based on the reasonable expectation that a user would be protected by this technology, which could time-delete messages, eliminating the danger of reputation-damaging personal messages or photos leaking out to the general population.
That entire notion flies right out the window with another technological maneuver known as the screen shot. With a tandem push of two buttons, your phone will capture everything that appears on the screen, saving it as a JPEG photo file.
In fact, my own First Daughter saved screenshots of Snapchat messages from her best friend for a year. She then printed hard copies of her favorite ones and presented them to her friend as a pamphlet on her birthday. Made her cry!
But now a screenshot can be effectively countered by the sender setting the exposure time to the shortest time setting—one second. It would take a spirited attempt by the receiver to capture those messages, but it can be done. One need only ready themselves in anticipation of an incoming message, prepping themselves in advance to press for a screen capture.
Formulation of Illicit Plans
Snapchat is potentially where the Hassle/Cuellar duo met their demise. Kudos on them for their security awareness, but this American judge is going to have to give them a low score for their execution. They can protest my low score, but they will have to do it from jail, an institution that fully supports my low score. After all, they did get caught rather quickly due to their ignorance and sloppy work.
So I’ve given Snapchat two black eyes so far, but not a bloody nose…yet. Let’s imagine we are small children playing the “Let’s Pretend” game. Let’s pretend that a noble American clandestine agent’s communications equipment fails during a critical operation against enemies of the United States. Are you with me?
At the very brink of failure, the operatives remember they can use Snapchat to conduct their secret operations without fear of records of their conversations falling into enemy hands (still pretending here). They break out their iPhones and Snapchat their way to mission success. The country is saved, nobody dies, and everyone is able to tell the story at the Thanksgiving table for years to come.
The dream-shattering reality is that Snapchat doesn’t use encryption, specifically end-to-end encryption (not pretending anymore). This sort of encryption, regardless of its strength, protects all messages with an encryption key that only the sender and receiver have; no third parties can intercept the message during transmission (this is called a Man in the Middle attack) and decipher your messages.
That right there is the bloody nose. In fact, Amnesty rates the security of several message applications on a 100-point scale. These are the following scores of the leading contenders:
- Skype: 40/100
- Apple iMessage and Facetime: 67/100
- Messenger: 73/100
- What’s App: 73/100
- Snapchat: 26/100
Snapchat does delete all message traffic and photos from its servers. Law enforcement (LE) needs a subpoena signed by a judge to request information from a server, or a warrant signed by a judge to conduct their own search of the server. All LE would gain would be metadata about the messages—times and dates of transmissions—but not the content of those messages.
So there is no record of the messages, right? Balderdash, I tells ya. Hogwash and poppycock. In an earlier essay I published, I explored how the smartphone is essentially two prime mover components: a base-band modem and a full-up computer. The modem handles the communications transfers and the computer processes application interfaces.
It is the nature of the computer in your phone that undermines Snapchat’s ostensible security. Snapchat deletes messages from its servers and kindly invites your phone’s computer files system to delete the message as well—and the phone does delete them.
But (and This is a Huge But)
Computer 101: How deleted is deleted data on your computer? Not very deleted, I’m afraid. I know that, you know that, Bob Dole and the American people all know that. Your phone deletes as directed, but performs no wipe function such as overwriting your old messages. They remain until such (lengthy) time that they are overwritten by the natural function of hard drive memory space. There is no indication, estimate, or rule of thumb for how long it will take for that to occur.
LE can subpoena or warrant the search of your phone during a criminal investigation. An entry-level forensic scan of your phone can reveal damaging evidence in relatively short order. Yep, another one of life’s simple pleasures ruined by a meddling bureaucracy.
I don’t mean to assist any murderers, but refusing to give LE the password to your iPhone will probably tie your court case up indefinitely. Jailbreaking is still wickedly difficult, and conducting a chip-out maneuver, while possible on many phones, is not an option on the iPhone.
So Then, Snapchat
Snapchat is a fad, a trend, a kid’s toy, an undigested bit of beef, a crock of mustard, a crumb of cheese (Ebenezer Scrooge). Snapchat is a medium by which high-and-right teeny boppers send peek-a-boo selfies among themselves. Does it seem like the popularity of such a product lies in its inherent ability to ford more opportunities to act badly?
Whoa, but Geo, take thy beak from my heart. What about all the other bells and whistles and parlor tricks Snapchat offers? Touché! I would be remiss if I were to neglect to mention the extraordinarily annoying feature that allows you to insert bunny ears and nose to your portrait! OK, even I admit that feature is not utterly devoid of its charm, to a degree.
Snapchat’s ability to delete message traffic from server storage notwithstanding, and in direct sunlight of its failure to provide an acceptable level of end-to-end encryption, it misleads users into believing their information is safe. There is a time and place for Snapchat; murder planning is neither. If one were irreconcilably disposed to such event planning, it would make better sense (to me) to engage one of the peer applications that boast a higher Amnesty score. One above at least 50.
By almighty God and with honor,
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