Facebook’s claims that it is impossible for private messages to appear on public Timelines are untrue, says Jack Yan, CEO of the Wellington-based Jack Yan & Associates, who has asked the Privacy Commissioner to investigate. He urges others to contact the Privacy Commissioner’s office (via http://privacy.org.nz) if their Facebook private messages have been published without their consent.
Mr Yan, who initially believed that reports of the privacy breach were hoaxes, says there are at least three cases of the glitch in New Zealand that he has heard of since last week, when French media first revealed the bug.
He has also learned of one American case which involved a contractual dispute, something which that user says would never have been dealt with on her Facebook wall.
Facebook has denied all the allegations reported in the media so far, blaming users and saying that the posts had always been visible on their walls.
Mr Yan, who considers himself an expert user of the social networking site, especially during his 2010 Wellington mayoral campaign, says in 2011, a typical year, he had 153 wall posts. But in 2007, one of the years affected by the glitch, Facebook now reports he has 786 messages posted on his wall. ‘That’s blatantly untrue. I’ve read through them and the overwhelming majority are private messages. I didn’t even have 786 friends in 2007, from memory—so I would need each friend to write on my wall that year. How likely is that?’
He says that with the introduction of Facebook Timeline in September 2011, he spent considerable time trying to understand the layouts and algorithms behind the redesign. During that time he checked previous years’ public posts and noted that they increased in number with each year—the opposite to what he presently sees after Facebook’s privacy leak for the 2007–11 period.
‘I can’t see 2010, but according to Facebook, there were 786 messages on my wall in 2007, 399 in 2008, 216 in 2009, and 153 in 2011. For the majority of Facebook users, these numbers should be increasing per annum, not decreasing,’ says Mr Yan. ‘Certainly before the breach, those numbers increased for me, and I remember the 2007 one being under 100, not 786.
‘It is disingenuous of Facebook and others to claim that users did not know how to use private messaging in 2007–9. I don’t know anyone who would not know the difference between a public wall post and a private message.’
He adds that the messages that have now been published cannot be found in the private-messaging section, which may be why Facebook has claimed that it cannot confirm these cases.
‘Facebook says it has investigated incidents of this and that none can be verified. This is most likely due to a Facebook programming error which failed to group these private messages correctly. Therefore, when I downloaded my complete Facebook data in October 2011, these private messages were also identified as wall posts there, and this is what Facebook has gone with in its investigations. But for whatever reason, they were not visible on Timeline until recently.
‘I realize Snopes.com and others have said this is a hoax, but Facebook users should go to their own 2007–9 summaries and judge for themselves. While it hasn’t affected everyone, it has affected quite a number.
‘Real wall posts are generally one paragraph. I am seeing messages that are paragraphed and are lengthier.
‘The one substantial change is that Facebook switched from third-person status updates to first-person ones,’ he says. In the early days of Facebook, the user’s name was featured with the word ‘is’ next to it, forcing users to write in the third person. Mr Yan says he stuck with the third-person rule on Facebook till 2009, yet he can find earlier first-person messages that he authored, now revealed on others’ pages.
Mr Yan also says that before Facebook introduced the threading in private messaging in 2008, users would often excerpt a previous message in their replies. He says he can see such messages published on his Timeline as well.
He has asked the Privacy Commissioner, Marie Shroff, to investigate its implications for New Zealanders.
Mr Yan says that users should either click on the pencil icon next to the year’s summaries of their wall posts and hide them, or change their privacy settings so that others’ wall posts cannot be seen by friends (Privacy Settings > Timeline and Tagging > ‘Who can see what others post on your timeline?’, select ‘Custom’, then ‘Only Me’).
‘It is appalling for so many at these large corporate websites to blame the users and treat them as liars. I’m hardly surprised that they do not grasp the seriousness of these privacy issues and have failed to take users’ feedback into account,’ he adds. ‘It’s a corporate culture that needs to be changed and as far as New Zealanders’ privacy is concerned, Facebook needs to come clean.’