Investigator's Guide to Snapchat

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The Investigator’s Guide to Social Media introduces popular social media platforms and how information shared on these platforms can benefit investigators. In this installment, we’ll be discussing why one should be investigating Snapchat.

What is Snapchat?

Launched in September of 2011, Snapchat is a mobile native app which allows users to securely share messages, photos, and videos. While the platform offers its users more privacy than other social media platforms, the abundance of information makes it a valuable resource for organizations that are capable of investigating Snapchat.

How does Snapchat work?

The peer-to-peer communication app’s primary appeal is that the content users share has a limited lifespan. Because snaps are destroyed after 24-hours, Snapchatters don’t apply the same level of concern as they would when posting content to other social media platforms. According to its developers, this allows Snapchat users to communicate their creativity instead of capturing memories.

That same temporal nature of Snapchat could benefit investigators as users develop a false sense of security and are encouraged to overshare. However, the limited window also means that would-be social media detectives face tough odds in locating relevant information before it disappears.

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Snapchat Terminology
  • Snaps – Snaps consist of photos or videos that are taken and shared with Snapchat. Recipients can view a snap for one to 10 seconds before it disappears forever.
  • Snapback – A snapback is a reply to a snap.
  • Stories – Stories consist of a group of chronological snaps which users can broadcast to all of their followers. Stories can be viewed by recipients an unlimited amount of times during their 24-hour lifespan.
  • Snapcode – Snapcodes are the scannable code around a user’s avatar. These make it easier for users to share their profile with friends on other social media platforms.
  • Chat – This feature allows users to directly message other Snapchatters. (Learn more about Snapchat’s chat feature.)
  • Video Chat – This feature allows users to share private video conversations.
  • Memories – Memories are photos or videos that are saved to a user’s account and/or mobile device. Memories can be reposted as a story or shared again with specific users. (Learn more about Snapchat’s memories feature.)
  • Lenses & Filters – Lenses and filters are overlays which offer users a variety of ways to personalize their snaps. (Learn more about Snapchat’s geofilters.)
  • Snapcash – Snapcash allows users to transfer money to one another through chat with a connected debit card. (Learn more about Snapchat’s snapcash feature.)
Who uses Snapchat?

Snapchat has recently surpassed Twitter with 150 million daily active users (DAU). While Snapchat’s 60 million DAU in the US and Canada are representative of every demographic, the platform is wildly popular with teens and young adults. More precisely, 60% of the platform’s users are less than 25 years old.

Distribution of Snapchat Users by Age

Investigator's Guide to Snapchat - Graph illustrating the distribution of Snapchat users by age.
Demographic information courtesy of Statista.
What information do users share on Snapchat?

Snapchat is useful for viewing an individual’s activities within the past 24-hours. The messages, photos and videos shared by Snapchatters are potentially a valuable resource for investigators as they develop the subject’s lifestyle patterns. In addition to the content they share, users agree to provide Snapchat with access to the following information: contact list (phone numbers), precise location, access to text messages, phone status/identity, and the contents of the phone’s USB storage.

While Snapchat doesn’t integrate / plugin to other social media platforms, users will frequently share their Snapchat username or snapcode in the biography sections of their Twitter or Facebook accounts. They do this because Snapchat is their preferred method for privately communicating with their friends.

How does one search Snapchat?

Investigators can use the mobile app to search for any given individual by phone number, username, snap code, or wifi (if the users are connected to the same internet network). As it is a mobile native app, Snapchat is not accessible by computer unless you are running an Android or iOS emulator.

Without interacting with the subject, SMI’s analysts can identify: username(s), phone number(s), and any public snaps from the last 24-hours. Positively identifying the owner of an account could lead to the court-ordered release of additional content. Also, knowing a subject’s username can aid investigation of other social media platforms.

Should you be investigating Snapchat?

Investigating Snapchat could potentially aid an investigation – especially if the subject is less than 35 years old. Let’s be honest, it’s difficult for investigators to completely ignore a platform with 10 billion daily video views.

For all of its potential, investigating Snapchat isn’t a simple endeavor. Snapchat may not be accessible to some investigators due to the fact that it’s mobile native. Additionally, investigators are limited to examining only recently shared content which is publicly available. For these reasons, we strongly suggest that investigators consult a subject matter expert before seeking evidence on Snapchat.

Let us know how investigating Snapchat fits into your discovery process in the comments section below. Want more information about SMI’s social media investigation or preservation products? Please contact us or call (888) 299-9921 and one of our representatives will gladly assist you.

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