Nova Scotia

Snapchat pictures re-posted by 3rd party accounts showcase debauchery at universities

Embarrassing pictures on social media platforms like Snapchat may have a much longer life online and some images that are meant to be private are being shared publicly.

'This is likely promoting all kinds of serious invasions of privacy'

Private images on apps like Snapchat may be far more public and long lasting than some people realize. (Patrick Fallon/Bloomberg)

They are images of dormitory drug use, drunken debauchery and naked selfies — captured by self-destructing photo apps such as Snapchat.

But social media images intended to be fleeting, and for a limited group of friends, are taking on a longer life and a much larger audience through unsanctioned accounts that collect posts from students and repost them to anyone who subscribes.

The accounts raise questions about child pornography, revenge porn and invasions of privacy, because people in the background of photos and videos featured in these rogue accounts may not have consented to the post being shown to a wider audience. These accounts have cropped up at at least 26 universities and colleges across the country, according to an analysis by The Canadian Press.

"This is likely promoting all kinds of serious invasions of privacy," said Wayne MacKay, who is a law professor at Dalhousie University and a cyberbullying expert. "Unless they themselves are submitting it, and that's probably not normally the case."

'The law and policy has not kept pace'

Here's how the accounts work:

Users send in photos and videos of what appear to be students to a Snapchat account that chronicles life at a school. The account then re-posts the information for all its followers to see — without identifying the users who submitted them.

The peer-to-peer messages are supposed to automatically delete after 10 seconds. Using unauthorized third-party applications to re-upload content to Snapchat, the accounts compile these pictures and videos into "stories," short vignettes that can be viewed by thousands of followers within their daylong lifespan.

Each story cycles through crowd-sourced clips, such as study-break selfies, keg parties, bongs, public slut-shaming and young people in various stages of undress.

MacKay voiced concerns about whether all the naked subjects of these photos were of age and had consented to their distribution.

"The law and policy has not kept pace with the development of technology and social media," said MacKay, who chaired Nova Scotia's cyberbullying task force.

Adult content

Images on Snapchat expire after 24 hours, only to be replaced by a fresh supply of photos. These accounts often feature risque content.

"Look how big our mouths are," one photo reads in pink letters, punctuated by a winky face. Two girls smile wide for the camera, jaws agape.

"Where are the (breasts)?" a user asks, and a few clips later, he had an answer.

Snapchat's community guidelines dictate that the app is not to be used "for any illegal shenanigans" including pornography, nudity involving minors, invasions of privacy, threats, harassment or impersonation.

"Snapchat is about sharing moments and having fun," the company's community guidelines read. "We will do our best to enforce (the rules) consistently and fairly, and ultimately we'll try to do what we think is best in each situation, at our discretion."

Snapchat has 100 million daily users with eight billion videos viewed on the app per day.

Oversight of app?

Snapchat did not initially respond to multiple requests for comment on how it monitors accounts for questionable content. After a version of this article appeared online, a Snapchat spokesperson said Monday the company has taken action against accounts violating its terms of service agreement.

The spokesperson said Snapchat has a trust and safety team that reviews reports of abuse and responds to violations.

The company said it cooperates with investigations from law enforcement and details these requests in a bi-annual transparency report.

Working to escape detection 

Proprietors of these accounts set up multiple usernames, presumably to elude detection.

"This account WILL get banned," an account featuring clips from University of Toronto students warns, suggesting followers add another account as backup for when it does.

This whack-a-mole has given rise to Snapchat knock-off mobile apps that offer many of the same services as Snapchat, with even less oversight.

Mojo - College Stories, formerly known as Fleek, is an iPhone app that lets users upload photos and videos to campus-wide accounts, based on their location. Submissions are anonymous, and anyone who downloads the app can see them.

"Your Unofficial Campus Story that WON'T GET BANNED," the iTunes description reads. "You have all the power, not Snapchat."

Unlike Snapchat, which is approved for children 12 and older, Mojo - College Stories recommends that its users be at least 17.

The app's terms of service prohibits "unauthorized activities" including submissions that incite illegal activity, exploit minors or violate the legal rights of others, but the app also states that it does not necessarily police posts

App popular in Halifax

Neither Mojo - College Stories nor its developer, Squid's Inc., could be reached for comment.

On Mojo - College Stories, The Canadian Press found channels about 26 universities and colleges, with a following of more than 25,000 total users. This could be a fraction of the true audience.

The app is most popular in Halifax with nearly 6,000 users, and Dalhousie University topped the list of schools with more than 3,000 online.

Universities in Winnipeg took second place, followed by Toronto.

'A lot of consequences for the victims'

Dalhousie spokesperson Brian Leadbetter said the university contacted Snapchat to request that the institution's name be removed from the "dalhousie.snap" account, but he says Snapchat declined to take action. The Canadian Press contacted the owner of "dalhousie.snap" but did not receive a response.

Leadbetter said the university has not received any complaints about the account.

MacKay said that despite Snapchat's self-destructing posts feature, everyone knows a screen capture can make it permanent — and once something is on the internet, it may never disappear.

"It is always surprising and challenging how quickly technology changes to allow people to do things without detection and without consequences for them, but with a lot of consequences for the victims," MacKay said.

New Legislation on the way

Nova Scotia is drafting legislation to replace its far reaching cyberbullying law inspired by the death of Rehtaeh Parsons. The original law was passed in May 2013, weeks after the 17-year-old was taken off life-support.

Parsons attempted suicide after a digital photo of what her family says was a sexual assault was circulated among students at her school.