Is Snapchat Investigations a Viable Investigative Tool?
As experts in the field of internet and Snapchat investigations, it is common for us to speak to groups of industry professionals, clients and students on topics related to social media and internet investigations. More specifically, we often teach the role of social media in various types of investigations, and the best ways to utilize the vast amount of information available through the numerous platforms and outlets that most Americans utilize. In response to the quantity of questions our team is being asked about Snapchat, I wanted to share some of what we know; including what the limitations are, and what we expect from this platform in the future. Is Snapchat a worthwhile investigative tool?
It is comical just how many social media platforms there are these days. Our team gets asked about the newest and latest social media platforms on a daily basis; mostly by our clients, colleagues and friends. It is also a given that attendees at our trainings catch us off guard by asking about some of the newer and more obscure social media platforms available. Admittedly there are times when we have not yet had the opportunity to fully explore a new platform by the time we are being asked about it! You can forgive us for being slightly behind on each and every new social media platform that comes out, as there are literally thousands of them, some more obscure than others. More importantly than just knowing about these platforms, as investigators, we aim to understand how they work, how we can use them to gather information and ultimately, what else they can lead us to during the course of an investigation. The majority of the social media platforms, that are not Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn or Instagram serve the purpose of helping us locate our targets on one or more of these mainstream sites, which are more likely going to contain the information we might be looking for. Other, smaller platforms, when find, may tell us something in and of themselves about an individual, but may contain less data overall. Specifically, there are many social media platforms that are unique to a demographic; whether it pertains to a nationality, hobby, lifestyle or career. Just identifying a target on one of these sites may aid in the investigative process.
Since Facebook and Twitter have taken the internet by storm, hundreds (probably thousands) of new platforms have been created. Some aiming to be mainstream and others focusing on a specific user group, hobby, lifestyle or population type. Over this time, no platform has created so much buzz, while accumulating so many users and creating so much daily “content” as Snapchat. The questions about Snapchat and how to use it to investigate people began long before it was as large or as mainstream as it is now. The majority of these questions were easy enough; “is there a way to view someone’s individual snaps?” The short answer (and really the only answer) to this questions is – no. Individual Snaps between one or more individual users are only available to be viewed for 24 hours. The initiating user selects who individually to send the Snap too from their list of contacts, which probably doesn’t include you as the investigator. Furthermore, Snapchat themselves, through their user agreement, specifies how long these type of individual Snaps are stored and what data is preserved. As you will see below in the excerpt from Snapchat, the images and video are only saved on the Snapchat servers until all users have viewed the Snap or it has expired.
Not only does this all but completely eliminate the investigative possibility of viewing or saving this type of content, but even with a subpoena it would appear that this information would not be available. Now that we have identified that getting to individual Snaps is not possible and therefore, not any investigative tool, we can look into other aspects of Snapchat to determine if there are any features that could prove useful to an investigator.
Another popular option within Snapchat allow users to post images and video to their “Story”; these posts, which a user’s “story” are similar to individual Snaps, whereas they are only available for 24 hours and then disappear. In order to view these images and videos, a user must select to follow the sending user prior to viewing their posts, but can be blocked or removed at any time by the sending user. This creates a significant challenge when it comes to locating a target’s username. Because Snapchat is only on mobile devices and the search features are limited to those users in your contacts and those you can readily find online (usually celebrities or people sharing their usernames on other platforms), finding the username of a target can be a challenge. There are some less than reliable search directories available, but success rates (based on our own testing) have not been great. The easiest solution to this, if you already have a target’s confirmed cell phone number, is to add that person to your list of contacts on your mobile device. Since you granted Snapchat access to this data on your phone, it acts as its own self contained, automatic search tool by locating user profiles associated with that cell phone number within your device, provided there is one and that you have the correct cell phone number of course.
Other challenges include documenting images and videos once you have identified a user and can view their Story. We have found several Mac and Android apps to aid in this process, allowing an investigator to sit and await that next post. But what information is available once content is posted? Investigators may have many different purposes for wanting to see what someone is posting to Snapchat, but the most common application we see is when we are trying to track someone down. “The Skip Trace”; the bread and butter of any professional investigator in the most common example we come across. In this application, there may be telling information in the background of a Snap, or the user may have utilized a filter that gives away their general location. Aside from these possibilities, there isn’t much more to be had. Snaps do not contain geotagged metadata and even with a screenshot, you are not capturing the original video or image that could contain that information anyways. Generally, you are looking for clues or hints as to where someone is or what activities they may be partaking in.
From an investigative standpoint, the most useful information comes from knowing someone’s username. It is not uncommon for a target of an investigation, particularly someone who is actively hiding from something or someone to utilize pseudonyms or profile names that are difficult to connect back to a real person. As a result, having a person’s Snapchat handle may prove useful in locating profiles on other platforms that you may not readily be able to locate.
As for now, we will continue to monitor Snapchats development for better search options to identify usernames and look for updates adding to what users can publicly post. It stands a good chance that changes are coming to Snapchat, with the recent IPO launch and the need to generate revenue, developers may be looking for ways to expand usage and tie into other mainstream social media platforms, possibly making Snapchat a viable investigative tool for the future.
If you are interested in hiring us to conduct a social media or internet investigation, any of our trained investigator would be happy to discuss your case.