Shortly before he disappeared at sea off Jupiter in July, Austin Stephanos posted a Snapchat video that showed menacing clouds on the horizon.
Stephanos and his friend, Perry Cohen, both 14 at the time of their disappearance, haven’t been seen since, although their 18-foot fishing boat and Austin’s iPhone were found last week by the crew of a Norwegian ship.
Unraveling the mystery of their disappearance is complicated by a pair of technical challenges. First, Austin’s iPhone was exposed to saltwater for eight months. Second, he used Snapchat, a messaging network where posts are programmed for self-destruction.
“If it were on any other social network, the ability to reach into archives would be completely different,” said Aliza Sherman, a digital marketing consultant and co-author of Social Media Engagement for Dummies.
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Unlike Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, where posts linger for years, Snapchat was built on the idea that a message would be deleted almost immediately after it was viewed.
“Technically speaking, they’re supposed to disappear,” Sherman said. “That’s part of the appeal for young people.”
CBS Miami last summer reported that one of Austin’s friends viewed a Snapchat video that showed a fast-developing summer storm headed toward the boys’ boat, along with a grim commentary: “We’re (expletive).”
I think they’re probably deliberately vague. None of us really know for sure what exactly is being done. Only Snapchat knows.
Aliza Sherman, a digital marketing consultant
Snapchat didn’t respond to a query about whether it maintains possession of that video, but the company’s policy favors erasing messages.
“Snapchat lets you capture what it’s like to live in the moment,” the company says on its website. “On our end, that means that we automatically delete the content of your Snaps (the photo and video messages that you send your friends) from our servers after we detect that a Snap has been opened or has expired. But remember: There are various ways Snapchatters can save your content and also upload it to Snapchat.”
When Snapchat launched in 2012, images taken on the app were visible to a user’s friends for only a few seconds. In 2013, the network allowed users to make posts accessible for 24 hours. The messaging app’s millions of users — many of them ages 13 to 23 — send billions of messages a day.
“Keep in mind that, while our systems are designed to carry out our deletion practices automatically, we cannot promise that deletion will occur within a specific timeframe,” Snapchat’s policy says. “And we may also retain certain information in backup for a limited period of time or as required by law.”
Perry Cohen’s mother on April 24 filed a lawsuit against the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and Austin Stephanos’ father. She argues that the phone could contain clues to the boys’ disappearance and should be examined by experts.
Snapchat doesn’t say how often it erases its servers or how long it stores users’ content.
“I think they’re probably deliberately vague,” Sherman said. “None of us really know for sure what exactly is being done. Only Snapchat knows.”
It’s possible that Austin’s final Snapchat messages remain on his phone, which authorities returned to Austin’s father. Perry Cohen’s mother on April 24 filed a lawsuit against the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and Austin Stephanos’ father. She argues that the phone could contain clues to the boys’ disappearance and should be examined by experts.
“The information on Austin’s iPhone must be collected by technology experts who have the expertise required to extract such data without unnecessary risks of losing such information inadvertantly or due to inexperience in such highly technical matters,” Pamela Cohn’s lawsuit said.
The lawsuit mentions the FBI’s battle with Apple over unlocking an iPhone used by one of the terrorists in last year’s attack in San Bernardino, Calif. But it’s unclear whether Apple is fighting the Stephanos family’s attempts to retrieve the information on Austin’s phone.
His family said it’s working with Apple. The company didn’t respond to a request for comment.