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 s a mobile native app that allows users to share messages, photos, and videos securely. On one level, Snapchat offers its users more privacy than Instagram – a similar social media platform that Facebook owns. Nonetheless, the abundance of information makes it a valuable resource for conducting social media investigations.
How does Snapchat work?
The main appeal of Snapchat is twofold. Its content, known as snaps, is designed to self-destruct after 24 hours. Second, many older adults are clueless about how Snapchat works, which makes it especially appealing to teens and users in their 20s and early 30s. According to developers, the temporary nature of Snapchat messages allows users to concentrate on creativity versus capturing long-lasting memories.
The temporary nature of Snapchat messages provides a potential benefit to investigators because users are often lulled into a false sense of security, leading them to overshare. The trick for investigators is to capture snaps and obtain the information contained within them before they disappear.
Like other social media platforms, Snapchat has its own terminology. Below is a list of some of the most common terminology associated with the platform.
- Snaps – Photos or videos taken and shared with other users Recipients can view a snap for one to 10 seconds before it disappears forever unless they take a screenshot of the snap.
- Snapback – A snapback is a reply to a snap. This term is no longer used very much.
- Stories – A series of snaps that can be viewed an unlimited number of times within 24 hours. Senders can save individual snaps or entire stories to their Memories permanently.
- Snapcode – Similar to a QR code, Snapcodes makes it easy for users to share their profiles with friends on other social media platforms.
- Chat – This feature allows users to directly message other Snapchatters by swiping from left to right on the Camera screen. Users can also use the chat function for live video calls and send money.
- 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.
- Lenses – Video effects applied to users’ faces through the Camera screen
- 3D World Lenses – Video effects applied to surroundings included in snaps or within stories.
- Filters and Geofilters – Filters apply overlays to snaps such as different colors, the time or local weather. Geofilters are similar, but are limited to specific events or locations
- Snapcash – Snapcash allows users to transfer money to one another through chat with a connected debit card.
- Discover — Used by brands and publishers such as CNN or Buzzfeed.
- Snap Map – allows users to scroll around a map to locate nearby friends, who are represented by Bitmoji.
Who uses Snapchat?
Snapchat users surpassed Twitter in 2016, with 150 million daily active users (DAU). As of 2020, the DAU grew to 249 million. In North America alone, Snapchat has more than 100 million DAU. The platform is popular with younger users, reaching 75% of Millennials and Gen Z. In fact, 75% of all 13- to 34-year-olds in the United States use Snapchat.
Distribution of Snapchat Users by Age
What is shared 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. Users also provide Snapchat with their contact list of phone numbers, access to their text messages, contents to their phones USB storage and their precise locations.
Snapchat does not integrate or plug in to While Snapchat doesn’t integrate or plug in to other social media platforms, users often include Snapcodes or usernames within their Twitter or Facebook profiles.
How does one search Snapchat?
Investigators can use the mobile app to search for any given individual by phone number, username, or Snapcode. If users are connected to the same Wi-Fi network, investigators can track them that way. However, because Snapchat is strictly a mobile app, it is NOT accessible by computer unless the computer is 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. With more than 10 billion daily video views, there is the potential to uncover information useful to an investigation.
That said, investigating subjects through Snapchat can be a challenge for a layperson, or even investigators who are not mobile-savvy. Additionally, without a court order, investigators only have access to 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.