Snapchat’s Controversial ‘Snap Map’ Update Leads to Child Safety Concerns

Snapchat got an update this week that lets you see a map of where your friends are sharing photos from. Creator Snap Inc. claimed the map offers “a whole new way to explore the world,” but critics have expressed concern that it could put children at risk.

Snapchat is one of the most popular apps with teens. Young users make up the majority of its install count, which is why privacy campaigners were alarmed by this week’s announcement. Snap Map is searchable, allowing outside users to identify places such as schools and view photos and videos being posted from inside. Although the feature’s designed for friends, users can publicly follow each other and still see uploads on the map.

The BBC reported that some schools in the UK issued advice about the new feature to parents this week. The location sharing systems used for the map are highly accurate, allowing individual buildings to be pinpointed. If a child posts “snaps” of their walk home with friends, an attacker could follow the trail to identify their house.

Snapchat has largely dismissed the concerns. It said that only publicly-shared posts are available on the map. The company also confirmed that location sharing is an opt-in feature that must be explicitly enabled. Nonetheless, parents told the BBC that Snap Map is “dangerous” and “awful.” Users have reported struggling to change their privacy settings and find the “off” button.

It seems as though Snapchat’s major new feature isn’t quite the success it had anticipated. While there are controls in place to limit abuse of the map, it’s also clear that inexperienced child users could have location sharing already turned on. A post that’s inadvertently set to “public” could be enough to show the world where they live. Some parents called on Snapchat to educate its users on the risk of location sharing.

Although some schools worldwide ban the use of phones during the day, most allow children to access their devices outside of lessons. The feature is still a risk even where phones aren’t accepted. Attackers could search for a school and then monitor photos being uploaded as students leave and log back into their devices.

Introducing the feature, Snapchat said it’s meant to help users find friends and identify new locations to visit. Writing in a news post, the company explained that Snapchat avatars (known as “actionmojis”) appear on the map, if your friends are sharing their location.

“We’ve built a new way to explore the world! See what’s happening, find your friends and get inspired to go on an adventure,” Snapchat said. “It’s easy to get started – just pinch to zoom out and view the Map!”

If you’re concerned about the privacy risks of the feature, you can turn it off by pinching Snapchat’s viewfinder to open the map. Tap the settings cog icon in the top-right corner of the screen and then press “Ghost Mode” to disable location sharing. The option is far from obvious, being buried under a menu and labelled with Snapchat-specific terminology.

[Featured Image by Dean Drobot / Shutterstock]