Snapchat’s New ‘Snap Map’ Could Be Crucial Tool for Investigators

Last week, Snapchat unveiled a new in-app feature that allows users to view location-based snap stories from users across the globe. The feature, called Snap Map, is intended to help Snapchatters find out what their friends are doing, discover what’s going on in their neighborhood, and even explore other users’ snaps from places of interest around the world.

In addition to enabling users to become virtual tourists through the eyes of other Snapchat users, Snap Map can be a valuable tool for investigators, researchers, security analysts, and public safety personnel to learn more about a geographic location, gather on-the-ground optical data, conduct threat assessments, and improve situational awareness.

How It Works

Snap Map is integrated right into the Snapchat app and can be accessed by “pinching” the main camera screen (“zoom out” gesture). From there, the app will display a map of your current location. The varying degrees of blue, green, yellow, and red colors on the map reflect the number of recent snaps taken in that geographic location. If you zoom out, you can see snaps from virtually anywhere in the world. Zooming in on a color dot will show you an impressively precise location of a particular snap. Tap anywhere on a color dot or cluster to view the snaps taken near that specific geolocation.

Users can add content to the map by taking a snap, then when sending, choose “Our Story.” The user is prompted with a message stating that the snap may appear on the map at the location where it was taken.

One amazing part of Snap Map is the ability to see what’s going on in almost real-time. Snaps shared in Snap Map appear almost immediately, and expire after about 24 hours. You can see how long ago a snap was taken while viewing each snap video.

Privacy Settings

As with almost any social media tool or platform, privacy settings play a big part in both how the product is used and its value for investigators. With Snap Map, users can choose to share their location with all friends, selected friends, or select “Ghost Mode” to prevent location sharing with anyone.

If a user chooses to share his or her location, their “Actionmoji” will be visible on the Snap Map, but only to friends. Ghost Mode disables the user’s location from appearing on the map to others, but if the user shares a snap to Our Story, the snap will be displayed on the map at the location which it was taken. Any Snapchat user will be able to see the snap, but it will not display the username of the person who captured it.

In all cases, non-friends are never able to see exact usernames attached to snaps displayed on the map; they can only see the location where the snap originated. Usernames and exact locations are only displayed to a user’s friends, and only if first enabled.

Value for Investigators

Snap Map could prove to be an incredibly valuable and useful tool for investigators, especially when used in conjunction with other geomapping services and social media platforms. Snap Map can greatly enhance the information collected through traditional means of open source collection and social media scraping.

Investigators and open source researchers are already familiar with a variety of common-practice tools to gather information about specific locations of interest. Typical mapping services like Google Maps and Bing Maps offer both graphical and satellite views of locations. Google Street View and Google Earth are great for more dimensional perspectives of a location. Other sites useful for finding user-generated images of locations, events, and people include TripAdvisor, Yelp, Google Images, and of course the ubiquitous Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

What Snap Map brings to the table for investigators is something most traditional mapping programs and other social media platforms cannot: the ability to see, in near real-time, location-specific events happening around your neighborhood or around the world. Yes, there is Facebook Live Map, but its privacy settings are more restrictive and it lacks the ability to zoom in to see the same level of close detail and specificity as Snap Map. Plus, Facebook Live has had recent issues with increasing numbers of pre-recorded “fake” live videos, as well as, in my first-hand experience, incessant pearl party livestreams.

Snap Map appears to have a similar purpose and functionality as Periscope’s map feature found on its mobile app. Periscope allows for lengthier videos than Snapchat, but some experiments showed that the location accuracy and geotagging precision of Periscope were not as accurate.

Snap Map allows you to zoom in as close as a city block or even a building to view what Snapchat activity may be originating there. Depending on what the user chooses to show in his or her video, a brief snap could be a crucial piece of information needed for your situational awareness of the location.

Snap Map also allows users to see what events or incidents in the area may be of interest, and could be the key to finding out about situations hours before they hit the news. Sporting events, concerts, protests, traffic incidents, and fire/police activity are just some examples of what could be found. Snap Map’s “heat map” design makes this even easier and more efficient, as dark red areas on the map indicate a higher level of snap-sharing activity.

Practical Use Cases

Say you’re following a protest, rally, or other large gathering in your town or neighborhood and want to gather more granular insights of what’s happening beyond the limited information available from local news or social media. Snap Map may be a useful tool for gaining a perspective from the ground. Watching a snap broadcasted from the middle of the crowd is probably as close as you can get to the action without being there in person.

Another example you might consider is using Snap Map to compliment your current GEOINT work using satellite imagery and traditional maps. Google Maps and Google Street View often show images which are months or even years old. Snap Map provides up-to-the-minute information pertinent to a location.

Final Thoughts

Researchers, investigators, public safety personnel, and security analysts alike will find many useful and practical applications for Snapchat’s new Snap Map feature. Situational awareness and understanding of a location is often key to successful investigations or mitigating risk. Keep an eye out for noteworthy competitors for similar features. Periscope and Instagram have been on the cutting-edge of this evolving feature as well. When used in conjunction with other open source tools and social media applications, Snap Map can provide critical intelligence for investigators. Snap Map not only allows for near real-time information to be shared, but its location-based design makes it an invaluable tool for any investigator. And for anyone who simply loves travel and discovery, you’ll find Snap Map to be a fun social media tool well worth the time spent exploring.

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Do you have a story to share about how you’ve used Snap Map for your research or investigation? Let me know! Share in the comments below or email info@nighthawkstrategies.com

Edward Ajaeb is founder and president of Nighthawk Strategies. He specializes in open source research, private investigations, and social media intelligence. Learn more at NighthawkStrategies.com

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