Check out our dissection of the privacy scare: Anatomy of the Facebook Hysteria: Remember the Aughts? You Will Now
Facebook users in the U.S. and European Union have begun reporting old private messages visible on their timelines. According to TechCrunch and multiple French and Italian publications, the newest messages are three years old and tagged as having been “Posted by friends.” TechCrunch reports the first tips about the bug coming from readers, while MetroFrance asks if it is a “bug or security breach?”
The French news site reported that where the flaw occurs messages are clearly past private communications and they are often mixed up with ‘comments from friends on [your] wall.’
Betabeat has also had multiple old messages pop up on our timelines, prompting unpleasant walks down Memory Lane.
UPDATE: In a statement emailed to Betabeat, a Facebook spokesperson said, “A small number of users raised concerns after what they mistakenly believed to be private messages appeared on their Timeline. Our engineers investigated these reports and found that the messages were older wall posts that had always been visible on the users’ profile pages. Facebook is satisfied that there has been no breach of user privacy.”
However, at least two New York Observer reporters are seeing items labeled as “posted by friends” (in some cases sensitive, work-related communication) that they believe to be have private messages. It’s hard to say with 100 percent certainty because the posts were from 2008. In this screengrab of what is now a post below, you can see the person who wrote it refers to their Facebook page, implying that this was a private message. The items that they believe to have been messages–now posted on Timeline–are no longer located in the original thread. TechCrunch also reports that direct messages, not older wall posts, are now showing up on their Timeline.
Reuters’ Anthony DeRosa tweeted with the same complaint.
Wow, I just had to hide private messages from several years on Facebook, I can confirm that this is an issue, for my account at least.
— Anthony De Rosa (@AntDeRosa) September 24, 2012
The reports–and Facebook’s denial–has inspired a good deal of frantic brain-ransacking among the tech press. What was the difference between how we wrote PMs and wall posts back in 2005? Before Newsfeed, most of us assumed wall posts were basically the digital equivalent of pinning a note on a friend’s dorm room door–not totally private, but not like taking out a billboard on the campus green, either. Now even those of us without PMs showing up are looking at what we wrote under those assumptions and groaning in sheer mortification.
If there’s confusion of just what the hell Facebook is publishing, it may point to a larger problem with the social network, which is that it wants to be around and leveraging your data for years into the future–and yet it keeps shifting what we can expect from the way it treats our posts and personal information.
UPDATE 2: In an extended denial published by TechCrunch, Facebook expanded their explanation of how they checked out the rumors of private messages being revealed on public timelines:
Every report we’ve seen, we’ve gone back and checked. We haven’t seen one report that’s been confirmed [of a private message being exposed]. A lot of the confusion is because before 2009 there were no likes and no comments on wall posts. People went back and forth with wall posts instead of having a conversation [in the comments of single wall post.]
UPDATE 3: Whether they’re private messages or old embarrassing wall posts, you can easily hide them:
1. On the right sidebar, click on the year you want to hide posts from. We hid everything from pre-2009.
2. In the box that aggregates all your wall posts and says “X number of people have written on your wall,” there’s an “edit or remove” option. Click it.
3. Click “Hide from Timeline” and all wall posts from that year will be hidden from your timeline.
UPDATE 4: Facebook also told TechCrunch’s Josh Constine that technical barriers prevent private messages from appearing as wall posts. Mr. Constine was told that “The two systems are totally separate.”
UPDATE 5: We consulted with an outside developer for Facebook, who works closely with the social network’s API. “I think it boils down to possibly three options,” he said. “1) facebook royally fucked up and some private messages were imported into the wall system. 2) facebook did not fuck up at all and some people are more public than they thought, 4-6 years ago 3) facebook fucked up a little bit – maybe in some cases – but people are going crazy over shit they said 4-6 years ago.”
The developer said that he checked his private messages from around the years allegedly impacted–2007-2009–and “couldn’t find any of those messages” in his inbox. This “isn’t evidence either way, but if they are separate systems [as Facebook told Techcrunch], one would think they would still exist in the private message system.”
“It’s obviously possible they fucked up,” he said. “Just seems unlikely that they fucked up so badly.” Though, “anything is possible code wise,” he added.