BeReal has good intentions, but does its privacy hold up?

Emma McGowan 6 Oct 2022

The social network’s aim is to allow people to share unfiltered moments of their lives. The potential danger comes when those unfiltered moments include information they’d rather not share.

There’s a new social media app in town and it’s making waves. BeReal — which launched in 2020 but didn’t really start gaining traction until midway through 2022 — encourages people to step away from the curation and filtering of other social media apps and “be real.” 

At a different time everyday, BeReal users are prompted to take an unfiltered picture in whatever situation they are in at the moment. When notified by the app, users have two minutes to take a photo with their front and back camera and share it with their friends network or other BeReal users. 

The app was created as a reaction to other popular social networks, such as Instagram and Facebook, where users post only carefully selected moments of their life. Those highly edited and manipulated photos have proven to have a negative impact on people’s mental health. The stated goal of BeReal, then, is to give users the opportunity to see things as they really are, with no filters.

But while the app’s owners suggest their intentions are good, there are some major potential privacy issues with it. Here’s what Jeff Williams, Avast Global Head of Security, found when he took a closer look at BeReal. 

1. It has the right to do what it wants with your photos — for 30 years. 

After giving the terms of service a close read, Williams realized BeReal is granted 30 years in which they can reuse user photos in any form. That means ad campaigns, promotional materials, videos, compilations — literally anything they want. In addition to it being an unusually long time period, the nature of the app, which potentially rewards sharing embarrassing or compromising situations, means there’s a very high risk for young people sharing without the thought of future consequences.

“Imagine your most compromising and embarrassing moment being attached to an ad campaign to your friends or to content which goes viral and garners millions of viewers.,” Williams says. “Thirty years is largely forever in internet time and potentially covers 60+% of someone’s career years. This seems to be a particularly long grant of rights with exceptionally broad permissions for use.”

2. You might reveal things you didn’t mean to reveal.

It’s very easy to share identifying information (like your location), personal information (like what the inside of your bedroom looks like), or even proprietary information (like a whiteboard at work) on BeReal. Obviously these are all things that can potentially be revealed on other apps, but the time pressure format, lack of editing and filtering, and hidden “delete” option means users are more likely to share things they wouldn’t share otherwise. 

“The app uses both the forward and reverse facing cameras as a way of capturing the activity of the moment- regardless of what it is or who is in the background,” Williams says. “This model can result in sharing sensitive information such as the contents of a computer screen or on a company whiteboard, or privacy invasive photos of people who have not opted-in to the service and who may have a right to an expectation of privacy. The time pressure can also result in sharing a personal moment which brings negative impacts in the future or where metadata exposes exact location.”

After all, that’s kind of the point of the app: to share unfiltered moments of your life. The potential danger comes when those unfiltered moments include information you’d rather not share.

3. There’s a lack of content moderation. 

BeReal appears to avoid all responsibility for the content posted on the app by calling itself a “hosting company.” That means they are only providing a platform for others to use. Hate speech, child sex abuse materials (CSAM), and other disturbing content could easily be spread on BeReal without any moderation.

“It’s been called out in the press repeatedly that Meta does an inadequate job of content moderation and that's with throwing hundreds of people at the problem,” Williams says. “I'd think that BeReal isn't going to make anywhere near that investment. So, the result is likely to be that everything bad you've ever heard about a lack of content moderation on Facebook, you're going to see even more of on BeReal.” 

4. Geolocation isn’t turned off automatically. 

While apps like Instagram now have geolocation off as a default, BeReal does the opposite. When posting a photo, users are asked to turn on/off geolocation and whether they want to share it with the whole BeReal community or just their circle of friends. 

“It is our strong recommendation that users turn geolocation off, especially when sharing pictures in the Discovery section,” Williams says. “The Discovery section displays pictures to users outside their friend group and is accessible by any user of the app. A real-time location can be misused for stalking or profiling.”

5. The app allows third-party cookies. 

Like Facebook, Instagram, and other social media apps, BeReal uses third-party cookies. That means user activity there is being tracked by advertisers in order to serve personalized ads. This kind of data tracking has become normalized to many across the internet, but it does have the potential to be invasive.

Ultimately, BeReal has many of the same privacy concerns that have plagued social media from the onset, so it’s up to each user to decide how important online privacy is to them. Maybe just ask yourself: Do I really want one more corporation having access to so much info about me? And is belonging to the group worth potentially exposing myself and others in ways that could be dangerous? You’re the only one who knows the answers to those questions.

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