2014 hasn't been kind to Snapchat.
Two months ago the popular instant messaging application, which allows users to send pictures and videos lasting just seconds at a time, was featured in a Time magazine story touting the business's opportunities for expansion. Now, the startup is facing a trial by fire following a large security breach which exposed the names and phone numbers of 4.6 million users.
Unidentified hackers claim the intrusion was intended to expose flaws in the security of Snapchat's system. The hack occurred on Jan. 1, 2014, only days after the company was publicly warned of holes in its protection of user information.
Jinyuan Sun, an assistant professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, said she was not surprised by the cyber attack.
"What I do know is that most of the consumer-oriented services don't have very good security system in place until big incidents happen, or until they grow big and popular," Sun said. "Security is often not what makes a product successful, so it's not a major concern that small companies are willing to invest in. I don't expect those services to implement very sophisticated security systems."
As a business, Snapchat generates no income. Founders Evan Spiegel, CEO, and Bobby Murphy, chief technical officer, shocked the business world in November by turning down a $3 billion purchase offer from Facebook.
Snapchat, created by the former Stanford students two years ago, has grown exponentially during its short lifetime. Numbers cited from CNN and Time estimated the number of photos sent through Snapchat's services at 400 million per day at the end of 2013.
The exposure of Snapchat's weaknesses has opened discussion of the potential risks of using such applications, which aim to maintain an environment of privacy and secrecy.
"I believe the app was intended to give people the freedom to do whatever they want, which is a dangerous concept," said Chelsea Gurene, sophomore in nutrition. "In these days, children even 10 to 12 years old have iPads or iPhones where they can send and receive inappropriate snaps. It is dangerous to allow children access to such a 'free' app."
Users like Megan Bell, junior in psychology, see privacy management as the responsibility of the communicator.
"Even though Snapchat claims that once the timer is up, your picture is gone forever, I don't believe that," Bell said. "If you're dumb enough to send incriminating pictures, you should be ready to face the eventual consequences."
Sun posits that online privacy is an unattainable goal, citing the information freely exposed by millions every day through online activities like searching for nearby businesses, which requires the user's location.
"I don't believe a service can completely ensure user privacy because that will render the service useless," Sun said.
The issue of personal privacy in the digital age, Sun believes, has ventured beyond secure networks and firewall protections. In her opinion, the information available to the world is controlled by what society finds appropriate to share on the World Wide Web.
"Internet is evolving, and the concept of privacy is also changing," Sun said. "It's not simply a technical question but more of a social and psychological issue."