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When Snapchat’s new privacy fine print matters – and when it doesn't

When Snapchat updated its Terms of Use and Privacy Policy on Friday, many users assumed (incorrectly) that the company was asserting ownership over pictures and videos taken in the app. What does the confusion say about the way privacy policies are written?

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    No, Snapchat's new privacy policy doesn't allow the company to sell your photos to advertisers.
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Snapchat’s popularity rests on its ephemeral, in-the-moment approach to sharing: pictures and videos sent using the app can be viewed once (or twice, if you’re willing to pay) and then they’re gone forever.

But on Friday, Snapchat updated its privacy policy and terms of use with some language that suggested users’ pictures aren’t gone at all. Furthermore, news sites such as The Telegraph reported that Snapchat could now use users’ content in promotional materials, on its website, or anywhere else it pleased.

As Snapchatters began to get out their pitchforks, the company clarified in a statement on Sunday that users’ pictures and videos can’t be used in promotional materials – because they’re automatically deleted from Snapchat’s servers as soon as they’ve been seen by the recipients.

“The important point,” the company wrote, “is that Snapchat is not—and never has been—stockpiling your private Snaps or Chats. And because we continue to delete them from our servers as soon as they’re read, we could not—and do not—share them with advertisers or business partners.”

Snapchat’s terms of service do, however, give the company a license to use public content such as pictures and videos that appear in the “Live Stories” section of the app. That license allows Snapchat to retransmit that content to additional users, or syndicate it down the road. But it doesn’t cover individual Snaps, meaning that person-to-person communications are still reasonably private.

The confusion over the privacy policy is at least partially the fault of overexcited journalism – but it might also point to a problem with legalese. Snapchat says it updated the privacy policy and terms of use “so that they’d read the way people actually talk.” Since hardly anyone read the original policy, and even fewer understood the legal terms it was written in, users took the change as a sign that Snapchat was asserting ownership over their pictures.

A 2006 study from the University of California, Berkeley found that only 1.4 percent of users read privacy policies “often and thoroughly” – and that number has probably decreased in the intervening decade, since hardly anyone has time to read through the privacy policies for each of the apps and online services they use. So where does that leave us? Some companies, such as Snapchat, have tried to reword their privacy policies so that they’re understandable to users who don’t have a law degree. In 2012, Google (now Alphabet) consolidated its privacy policies for more than 60 products into a single document written in plain English.

But plenty of people still won’t read privacy policies even if they’re written in simple language. That’s why some privacy advocates have been pushing for “visceral” notice, which uses everyday signs and symbols to inform people about how a service is using their data. The camera shutter sound that smartphones make when they’re taking a picture is one example of this kind of notice – when we hear that noise, we know instinctively that data is being captured. Another might be a small face icon that a company adds to a website to alert users that they’re being tracked.

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