Is Facebook Publishing People's Private Messages?

Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Sept. 24 2012 1:53 PM

Is Facebook Publishing People's Private Messages, Or Are We All Freaking Out Over Nothing?

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NEW YORK, NY - AUGUST 16: A news ticker announces the falling share price of Facebook in Times Square on August 16, 2012 in New York City. Shares of Facebook fell today on the Nasdaq stock exchange on the first day insiders were allowed to sell their shares. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images

UPDATE 2 (2:48 p.m. EST): A Facebook spokesperson responded to our email for comment by saying that the old messages now appearing on walls were in fact old wall posts and not private messages. Facebook sent the same statement to TechCrunch, but reporter Coleen Taylor said she believes that private messages are appearing on her wall and the walls of friends.

It is possible that this is all related to confusion about how we viewed wall posts way back in 2007—more as items we were sharing personally and directly with friends than posts that most of the world could see. In retrospect, those items might now look as though they were private, when in fact they were just the old way we did wall posts. Still, there seem to have been a whole lot of French people who were fairly positive that old private messages were appearing on their walls, and not old public wall posts. Here is Facebook's statement in full:

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"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."

UPDATE (1:59 p.m. EST): TechCrunch is reporting that the issue is now starting to affect Facebook accounts in the United States. We will continue to monitor the situation.

ORIGINAL POST: Today, Facebook users in France are reporting what appears to be a major problem: Private messages are showing up on public Facebook walls. Messages sent between 2007 and 2009 were reportedly the only ones showing up at first, but some French news outlets are now saying that private messages sent as recently as last year are being published publicly.

The messages are apparently appearing directly on users’ Facebook walls and in the box on the right rail that says “[#] friends posted on [user]’s timeline.”

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According to the French newspaper Metro, which first reported the problem, the issue is not systematic and affects only certain accounts. It’s not clear yet how many users are affected, but still, our colleagues as Slate.fr have wondered whether this is the biggest privacy scandal in the history of Facebook.

France’s biggest newspaper, Le Monde, is now leading its site with a front-page story titled “Private Messages Made Public and Plunging Stock: A Dark Day for Facebook.” (The second part of the headline seems to be unrelated to the first; Facebook stock has dropped nearly ten percent today after a report by the financial magazine Barrons said it was still overpriced.)

Facebook was unaware of the problem before it was reported by Metro on Monday afternoon in France.

Facebook representatives told the French news site 20Minutes.fr that they are “in the middle of investigating to see whether this is a bug or not a bug.” They didn’t clarify what “not a bug” meant, but presumably the other option is a hack.

Asked whether the bug was a worldwide issue or exclusive to France, Facebook told 20 Minutes “we don’t know, it’s the beginning of the investigation. But we are looking at this very closely.”

Facebook has had problems with security before, but only really when changes to privacy policies have confused users and made wall posts that could previously be seen only by friends available to the public at large. Never before has anything been reported where private messages between friends were published publicly on this kind of a mass scale.

Facebook has yet to respond to our email requesting comment.

If you’re using Facebook in France right now, you might want to make sure that your private exchanges are not showing up publicly. I, for one, am going to start checking my own wall regularly from my office in D.C. I wouldn’t want my friends and colleagues reading the embarrassing pet names my wife and I have for each other.


Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

Jeremy Stahl is a Slate senior editor. You can follow him on Twitter.

 

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