Is Snapchat's Snap Map Putting Users In Danger?

As technology advances, so does the ability to look into each other's intimate worlds.

Instead of being a given, privacy is becoming something we have to select in the settings section of our cell phones. The creators of Snapchat protest that their newest feature, Snap Map, is different, but police and child protection groups are concerned that this app has just made it a whole lot easier for people to get hurt.

Snap Map allows its users to share their location with others on a map display with amazing accuracy. As they travel, their little "Actionmoji" or visual representation of the user, will travel too, tracing their footsteps so that their location stays up-to-date. The creators of Snapchat insist that your location is only available to your friends on the app, however, if you send a snap to "Our Story," a slideshow of images and videos curated by the Snapchat team, it is potentially visible to anyone.

The tracking technology itself is not unique, and it's something many of us use and appreciate when we want to order an Uber or get directions, but it takes on a malicious tone when children are at risk. Law enforcement and child protection groups are issuing warnings to parents advising them to have conversations with their children about this new feature and how to use it safely.

“It is important that young people understand exactly who can see their location on Snap Maps,” the United Kingdom's Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre warns in their updated Snapchat guide for parents and guardians. “Allowing all Snapchat friends (some of whom may be strangers) to see this information can present a risk to young people, as they will be able to see their exact location in real time. Have a conversation with your child about what they do online, who they share their location with, and ways they can keep themselves safe. If they are meeting a friend in a busy place, encourage them to use a private message app or text to share personal information like location.”

By default, Snap Map is set to "Ghost Mode," meaning that the user's location is private and their Actionmoji is not visible on the map. For those who would rather not use the new feature, they can be even more cautious and make sure that Snapchat is denied access to their device's location sharing settings. Still, these are steps the user must know and make the time to take, and in error there is danger.

“There are definitely concerns when any application has location services,” said Det. Const. Sandor Illes of the WRPS Internet Child Exploitation Unit. “We encourage children to not provide their location.”

There's a certain comfort in privacy. Having control over the amount of information you share with the world and with who helps us maintain a sense of individuality. When your life can be traced by others without your consent, something sacred is lost, something of ourselves is given up. Technology, while simultaneously doing good for the world, is also making it a lot harder for people to keep their personal and private lives divided.

Given all the negative feedback Snap Map is getting, it can leave us wondering what exactly the is feature for. According to Jill Walker Rettberg, a professor of digital culture at the University of Bergen in Norway, "You can see the whole world. You can see life in a community you might not see otherwise."

With "Our Story" you can go to a world map and see the millions of snaps submitted to the public from all across the globe. Suddenly, far away worlds seem much closer as users from different countries can catch glimpses of each other in their daily lives.

"There was only one snap from Syria — a kid doing something cute and the mother, you could tell, was saying something like, 'isn't my kid cute?' That was from Aleppo," Rettberg told NPR. "That's a different version than we're getting from the news, but it's a valuable version."

Like most technological advancements or updates, Snap Map is a double-edged sword. Realistically, it presents a very real danger in becoming a tool for those who want to intentionally harm others. Yet if we think romantically like Rettberg, it could have a beautiful impact on cross-cultural exchange and promote understanding where there was previously ignorance. Still, there are plenty of ways to do that online without sharing and tracking one's location in real time.

It would be unfair to say that Snap Map is a potentially useless feature because it certainly could be a boon to many, but it is fair to point out that it's made an already dangerous world a little riskier.

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