Panic over Facebook privacy bug highlights how much social network has changed

25 Sep 2012

Yesterday, Facebook members were sent into a panic over reports originating from France that claimed a bug in the system made private messages viewable on users’ Timelines. Facebook has since stated that no such bug exists and that users have simply forgotten how different things were on the social network just three years ago.

“MASSIVE PRIVACY BREACH,” screamed updates in my Facebook news feed yesterday. “When you scroll down your Timeline you can select by year. Each year has different compartments. One, normally on the right, is titled ‘Friends’. This is showing PRIVATE messages that were sent to you. Maybe not for everyone, but it was for me and it’s going viral online now. You can select the option to ‘Hide from Timeline’ and maybe close your account just in case until it’s sorted.”

Like many panic-stricken privacy messages I see appearing on Facebook, I took this with a pinch of salt but still investigated the issue to see if there was any truth in it. I found the relevant section of my Timeline and all I discovered there were old wall posts, no private messages.

However, I did notice that going back to wall posts from 2009 showed how different interaction on Facebook was just three years ago. The posts on my wall from back then are generally singular, part of conversations taking place wall-to-wall instead of the stream of comments that’s more typical of Facebook 2012.

This is what seems to have caused the confusion. As Timeline rolls out worldwide (Facebook plans to have reached every user by the end of this year), users are being caught off guard with the permanency of Facebook’s data.

Timeline confusion

Timeline was most recently rolled out to users in France, and it was French newspapers Le Monde, Le Matin, and Metro France that first reported the issue of private messages appearing on the new profiles. This sparked a wave of privacy concerns among Facebook members worldwide, with users blaming the issue on a bug or virus in the system.

However, Facebook says there’s nothing to claims that the messages were private. “Every report we’ve seen, we’ve gone back and checked,” a Facebook spokesperson told TechCrunch’s Josh Constine. “We haven’t seen one report that’s been confirmed [of a private message being exposed].”

This spokesperson assured Constine that the system for public posts and private messages are entirely separate and an official statement from Facebook said, “A small number of users raised concerns after what they mistakenly believed to be private messages appeared on their Timelines. 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.”

While some users are certain that the messages they see were originally private, there appears to be no hard evidence to support this sparking a ‘he-said, she-said’ row.

Reviewing content

Years ago, there weren’t likes or comments on status updates, and users may have been a bit more frivolous with what they said on the social network before their mother, boss and great-grandfather became members. As the service has changed, so has the way users interact with it. The much-improved messaging service is where we now have private conversations while lengthy comment threads under a status update are where we hash out debates for all to see. The very idea of a ‘wall-to-wall’ conversation now seems ludicrous in the face of how the service has adapted to better suit online conversations.

But the old conversations still remain, along with everything you have posted to Facebook since you first signed up as a member. It’s all there, and it’s all part of your Timeline for all to see. Users may be more concerned about privacy on social networks now, and if so they need to address their old data and how this is presented on their profiles.

Clicking through their Timeline, users can decide to hide anything they’d rather leave in the past and not on public display. This also applies to modules that show events they attended, photos they were tagged in, pages they liked – and the aforementioned ‘Friends’ module that shows posts from friends – at any given time.

This is how Timeline works: it’s your entire Facebook history on show. Some people embrace it and populate their Timeline with life events that happened pre-Facebook. More private users may not want their back-dated Facebook interactions on show. If there’s anything you don’t want to be seen, you have to review the content and manually hide it yourself.

Elaine Burke is the editor of Silicon Republic