Snapchat videos and photos only exist for 10 seconds or less, then vanish from existence.

When it comes to the generational differences between today’s youth and their parents or grandparents, there are the obvious ones: Fashion, music and slang are just a few.

But what’s somewhat unique and specific to teens today is how they define the word “privacy” — and perhaps importantly, what that means for governments currently grappling with how and when to access personal information from citizens that are sharing more data online than ever.

The issue was brought up today to a panel at a University of Washington School of Law event that discussed how government should balance the protection of personal information and national security, among other related topics.

Microsoft Executive Vice President & General Counsel Brad Smith said he believes the definition of privacy has indeed changed. He spoke about the legal implications and cited U.S. Sonia Sotomayor, who noted the differences during the 2012 United States vs. Jones case.

“She referred to the fact that traditionally in the United States, secrecy was considered a pre-requesitive to having a reasonable expectation of privacy,” he explained. “In other words, for many generations, if you said you wanted to keep something private, what you probably were saying is you wanted to keep it a secret. As Justice Sotomayor suggested in that opinion, perhaps that definition of privacy has changed.”

Microsoft Executive Vice President and General Counsel Brad Smith, Congresswoman Suzan DelBene and ACLU National Legislative Counsel Gabe Rottman speak at a UW School of Law event Tuesday.

Smith then used the messaging app Snapchat as an example. Led by 23-year-old Evan Spiegel, the app — which Facebook offered to acquire for $3 billion — has become popular largely because photos and videos sent through the system quickly disappear 10 seconds after a user opens the file.

“In effect, I think the new definition of privacy means people don’t want to keep information secret, but they do want to ensure that they control who they share information with,” Smith explained. “They want to control what those people use the information for.”

Smith brought up a keynote Spiegel recently gave, during which he talked about three of the company’s value propositions. When describing one of those propositions, Spiegel never used the word privacy, but Smith contends that “it would read like a privacy manifesto.”

snapchat21“What this really underscores is that the meaning of words is changing,” Smith said.

William Covington, Director of Technology Law & Public Policy Clinic at the UW Law School, moderated the panel on Tuesday and agreed with Smith. When Covington grew up during the anti-war and Civil Rights Movement, he said that people were always on high alert when any form of information acquisition from the government came about.

He said he doesn’t see that same level of concern from his students today.

“I find them much more accepting of the fact that there is information out there and that information is going to be taken,” Covington said. “I think that there’s a completely different dynamic that’s very much generational.”

The panel, which also included Congresswoman Suzan DelBene and ACLU National Legislative Counsel Gabe Rottman, touched on a number of other topics related to the privacy in the information age. You can listen to the discussion below — the Snapchat talk starts around the 1:02:40 mark.

Related: How Microsoft’s top lawyer would keep the NSA in check

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  • panacheart

    It’s funny that lawyers want to redefine privacy in a way that allows speculation of its definition. No, teenagers who use Snapchat expect that information to remain secret between the sender and recipient. And none of us expect that the government should intrude on any of our conversations, emails etc.

    The SCOTUS has redefined the 4th Amendment to allow random drug testing in the work place, using employers as a proxy for the government. It has allowed the use of shotgun microphones by the police in “public places” or in cars in traffic, redefining private as “the home”. This of course means that renters, or the class of people who rent as opposed to owning their own property have zero 4th Amendment rights. And now it’s redefining what private means.

    The people’s view hasn’t changed; it’s only the lawyers and courts and the government who keep justifying changes to legal definitions in order to intrude on what are supposed to be inalienable rights.

    We have the right to be secure in our person, papers and things. That’s pretty clear. But the Supreme court keeps moving that definition, and who can violate it, with fancy legal definitions that undermine our basic constitutional rights with loop holes and contextual definitions that allow for corporate and governmental abuses of those “inalienable rights”.

    Oddly enough, and in great juxtaposition to the government’s view on personal freedoms is its view on government communication. Somehow the government can make claims that it’s justified to snoop on our communications, but when the people revolt and expose government communications (ie. Snowden and Wikileaks), exposing massive lies, coverups and serial criminal behavior including torture and murder, then “transparency” becomes a high crime. In othger words the government expects that its own communications are “secret”, but defines our communications as “private” which leaves them legal wiggle room to spy on us with a double standard that benefits them but not us.

    So this notion of Snapchat is completely off base. It is the expectation between users of Snapchat that their communications remain secret. The app even warns you if someone tried to screen capture something you sent. In other words the app warns you as best as it can if someone is trying to compromise your secret.

    I would argue that “private” and “secret” are synonymous, except for the lawyers who have an interest in trying to justify redefining those terms for their own benefit.

    • Kary

      I’d argue that the average American is very bad with definitions of a lot of words, including privacy. If you try to equate the word secret with private (which I wouldn’t) that problem becomes even more clear.

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