Could Snapchat’s Snap Map feature send party crashers to your home? 

The story goes something like this: Teens and young adults are looking through pictures or videos posted on Snap Map to find parties, then heading to the area and driving around until they find the house. Once there, some may steal or break items.

Some teens in Utah County are talking about the feature as a boon to party crashers, who may use the app to find boisterous gatherings.

But is it really happening?

Deseret News conversations with area police departments, parents and even Snapchat didn’t dispute or confirm such occurrences. Police said they thought the stories could be true, though they had not seen cases linked directly to the social media app.

“In all likelihood, we wouldn’t know that’s how they found out where the party was unless the suspect tells us that,” said Sgt. Spencer Cannon, public information officer for the Utah County Sheriff’s Office. He said he’d asked “a bunch of cities” throughout the county and had not found cases where the location-finding feature was cited. A handful of other local law enforcement agencies had similar responses.

“I’ve never heard that before, but with technology the way it is these days, it sounds legitimate,” said Det. Ben Nielsen, a spokesman for the Salt Lake City Police Department. “I can see that happening, but it’s nothing prolific we would be aware of.”

Whether it’s happening in Utah County or not, experts say teens and parents should be aware of the risks of location sharing and can take steps to reduce the chance such incidents occur.

“I do not doubt it could happen,” Cannon said, noting that different social media tools and platforms have greatly enabled people to spread the word about gatherings — sometimes well beyond anything the party thrower imagined or planned. That’s a problem officers know very well.

A Snapchat spokesman didn’t directly address whether party crashers get there by way of Snap Map, but said it’s easy for people to opt out of location sharing and that when stories are shared publicly on Snap Map and thus visible to any user who looks, locations are “obfuscated” by up to 2.48 miles (4 kilometers).

Spotting the party

If a friend at the party has turned location on, the place on the map is much more accurate than within 2.48 miles. Party seekers can also look for the heatmap spots pictured on Snap Map in an area to see where people are actively posting Snapchat stories, then thumb through them to see if there are party pictures. That gets you to the area, then it’s a matter of driving around to see if you find cars, noise and other signals that there’s a potentially crashable gathering.

“Things can go wrong when there’s a party. But finding a party is not itself against the law. Going and stealing or vandalizing is against the law. It’s possible it happens and the homeowner or police don’t know how the kids found the party,” Cannon said.

Easy resolution?

A spokesman for Snapchat told the Deseret News by email that location sharing on Snap Map is turned off by default until someone turns it on. If someone decides to be seen, they can pick friends who can see where they are. They can also use “ghost mode,” which hides them on the map. Ghosts can still post.

Snapchat said it doesn’t offer an option to share one’s location publicly with someone who has not been designated a friend.

The spokesperson said Snapchatters who do share their location with friends are reminded to confirm they still want to do that and they can easily turn it off. The app also offers a short Snap Map tutorial the first time someone uses it.

On Snap Map, users must “proactively” submit posts before a place is tagged and not all of them are current, although they are time-stamped. Snaps that are part of regular stories are not added to the map and exchanges between friends aren’t, either.

The spokesperson said that for those who stick with the default, no-location-sharing setting, Snap Map content is anonymous; personal information and exact location can’t be seen.

Staying safe

While the ongoing party-crasher rumors are Snapchat-specific, the risk isn’t, Anna Larkina, a web content analysis expert at cybersecurity company Kaspersky, told Deseret News.

“Any social networks that allow you to specify geolocation in posts can carry potential privacy risks,” she said. “However, this doesn’t mean that we should avoid them altogether.”

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Larkina said there are ways to be safe when posting photos or videos, starting with paying attention to where you are. “The most obvious way to protect your privacy is to avoid specifying geolocation,” she said. “But attackers can also use other information, such as what’s in the background of your photos or who you’re pictured with.”

She noted that “if you want to share photos from the party with your followers, but also want to hide your location as much as possible, then consider choosing a neutral background without any identifiable objects, building or address signs.”

She also suggests checking with companions to see if they plan on sharing posts with geolocation data.

Another good option, according to Larkina, is to post your photos or videos the next day. “This not only reduces the risk that you’ll post something you’ll regret later, but it also ensures that anyone trying to track your location will be too late.”

Following the tips lets someone share their experiences on social media, without compromising anyone’s safety, she added.

The unintended invite

Cannon has seen social media — and he’s talking about all kinds of social media platforms — amplify the size of gatherings and the problems they can create. Rumors of young people going to a gathering specifically to vandalize or steal, though, is new to him, he said.

Nielsen said that most often, parents have gone out of town or people go to Airbnbs to party.

“It’s not normal that we would get reports of stolen property and stuff, but I have seen that before,” he said. “I can see there could be people trying to take advantage of that opportunity. It’s definitely something to be aware of and just generally be prepared for.”

Lots can go wrong when a big crowd gathers — and where to find the party is often passed around on social media or by friends calling or texting other friends, Cannon said. The size can blow up fast.

During the pandemic, his department and others shut down several would-be parties involving young people who’d passed location information on to their online friends. He said enterprising party planners sometimes changed locations when law enforcement shut them down, forcing officers to use social media to locate the new venue.

Police are more apt to see alcohol and drugs than hear reports of theft or vandalism, though things sometimes get broken, Cannon said. And injuries can occur, as well. He tells the story of a massive outdoor party that involved “crowd tossing.” A girl landed on her head and was injured, but because the party was in an out-of-the-way place, it took time for help to arrive, including 10 minutes just for a deputy to work through the crowd to reach the girl. It took more time for an ambulance to get there and to clear room for a helicopter to land to fly her to a hospital, he said.

Most of those at the gathering didn’t realize until then that someone had been injured.

As for location sharing, there have been confirmed reports where social media apps were used to stalk someone.

Experts said parents and teens should talk about the potential risks of allowing geolocation data to be shared with anyone who’s not deeply trusted.