The culture minister, Ed Vaizey, has confirmed that anyone sharing a screenshot of a Snapchat picture without the maker's consent could potentially be sued under British copyright law.
He also warned that those who share sexual images without consent from those in them face prison sentences.
Vaizey was asked last year by DUP MP Jim Shannon if he would "take steps to prevent Snapchat images being made public without the consent of the image owner".
In a written response this month, he said: "Under UK copyright law, it would be unlawful for a Snapchat user to copy an image and make it available to the public without the consent of the image owner. The image owner would be able to sue anyone who does this for copyright infringement."
He also added that those distributing "private sexual photographs or films without the consent of an individual who appears in them and with intent to cause that individual distress, is an offence under Section 33 of the Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015".
"Those convicted could face a maximum sentence of two years in prison," he said.
Snapchat, a social picture and video messaging app, allows users to send footage or images directly to others. Unlike other social networking softwares, messages expire after a period of time set by the sender and can only be viewed once.
Because of this feature, Snapchat is often used to send sensitive or explicit material. Some users, however, have found ways around this feature.
Vaizey pointed out that Snapchat tries to inform posters when screenshots of posts are taken but also "advises users to avoid sending messages which they would not want to be saved or shared" more widely.
Earlier this month, Australian DJ Tigerlily announced she was planning to donate $5,000 to a mental health charity after a nude Snapchat picture of her was leaked online.
In an Instagram post, she wrote: "The content that has been ripped from Snapchat, edited, and distributed is being done so against my will. As Jennifer Lawrence said 'It is not a scandal. It is a sex crime. It is a sexual violation. It's disgusting.'"
Felicity Gerry QC, an international barrister specialising in sexual offending, said: "Copying images on any social media risks infringing copyright and endangering privacy. Distribution of sexual images is covered by a number of pieces of legislation in relation to child protection, extreme pornographic images, and non-consensual postings."
However, Gerry called for a need to be careful of "over-regulation and over-criminalisation in relation to the net which developed as a free information environment".
"Balancing human rights, intellectual property, and sexual freedom is a modern headache we must all get to grips with before we find human behaviour is overly restricted," she said. "The Snapchat issue demonstrates the need to develop workable and flexible approaches rather than draconian knee-jerk legal regulation."
Alan White is a news editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
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