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As Americans rang in the New Year, hackers reportedly published 4.6 million Snapchat usernames and phone numbers on a website called snapchatdb.info, which has since been suspended. The breach came less than a week after security experts alerted Snapchat of a vulnerability in its system and warned that an attack could take place.
In response to the warning, Snapchat said in a blog post last Friday that it had implemented "various safeguards" over the past year that would make it more difficult to steal large sets of phone numbers. But the measures appear to have fallen short.
The incident bruises the image of a young company that reportedly turned down a $3 billion buyout offer from Facebook last year. According to the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project, 9 percent of U.S. cell phone owners use Snapchat, which amounts to roughly 20 million adults, based on 2012 census data. The Pew study didn't include users under 18, a demographic with which Snapchat is especially popular. The Los Angeles-based company, which has no source of revenue, has not disclosed its own user figures.
What should users do? Gibson Security, the firm that warned Snapchat of the security vulnerability on Dec. 25, has created a site, — http://lookup.gibsonsec.org/ — that lets users type in their username to see if their phone number was among those leaked. Of two user accounts that The Associated Press checked, one was found to have been compromised.
Gibson Security did not publish the last two digits of the phone numbers.
Gibson says users can delete their Snapchat account if they wish, but "this won't remove your phone number from the already circulating leaked database." Users can also ask their phone company to give them a new phone number.
"Lastly, ensure that your security settings are up to scratch on your social media profiles. Be careful about what data you give away to sites when you sign up — if you don't think a service requires your phone number, don't give it to them," Gibson said.
This was Gibson's second warning to Snapchat, following one in August that the security firm said was ignored.
"Given that it's been around four months since our last Snapchat release, we figured we'd do a refresher on the latest version, and see which of the released exploits had been fixed (full disclosure: none of them)," Gibson wrote on the Gibson Security website.
The Snapchat breach comes just two weeks after Target was hit with a massive data security breach that affected as many as 40 million debit and credit card holders. Gartner security analyst Avivah Litan, said phone numbers are not considered "sensitive" personally identifiable information — such as credit card or social security numbers — so they are collected by all sorts of companies to verify a person's identity.
A phone number is "not as bad as password or magnetic strip information, but it's the piece of the puzzle that criminals need to impersonate identities," she said.
Regarding Snapchat's response to the warnings, however, Litan added that it "doesn't seem that responsible to be so nonchalant about it."
Christopher Soghoian, principal technologist with the American Civil Liberties Union, agreed.
"The main problem was that they ignored a responsible report by security researchers," he said, adding that his concern is not with the specific database of information that was released, but that Snapchat has "demonstrated a cavalier attitude about privacy and security."
Many people use Snapchat because it feels more private than other messaging apps and social networks. Users can send each other photos and videos that disappear within a few seconds after they are viewed. While the recipient can take a screenshot of the message, a big draw of Snapchat is its ephemeral nature.
"This probably won't be the last problem with Snapchat," Soghoian said. Companies like Microsoft and Google, he added, actively court security researchers and even pay bounties for people to expose flaws in their systems.
"Snapchat may be too small to pay bounties, but they certainly should be treating researchers with respect and addressing issues as soon as they are told about them," he said.
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