Facebook is littered with scares, generally coupled with bad advice about how to fix it, along with the suggestion that you should copy and paste the misunderstood warning far and wide. But a new one broke a couple of weeks ago that seemed to have some degree of credibility to it initially, and was picked up by offline media worldwide as well: A reputable French newspaper started spreading the news, Facebook is now posting private messages, exchanged years ago, on your timeline for all to see.
However, extensive investigations by privacy watchdogs over the course of a week, have revealed that no breach occurred. Not one single person amongst Facebook´s now 1 billion users, can provide evidence of any actual exposure of any item from their Timeline, that was once private but now made public. So, what on earth was everybody on about..?
It seems that it´s a case of selective memory reconstruction, and how our relationship with online privacy has evolved in that time. The period during which the breach allegedly occurred was, in terms of social media, a geological eon ago – back in 2006-2007. If you were using Facebook then you were not one of a billion others, you were in fact a pretty niche early adopter of a newish service, on an internet where we simply didn´t worry so much about privacy and information security, compared to the present day.
Facebook worked rather differently back then too, and whilst there was a private inbox service available, this was before the introduction of comments and likes (yes I know – unthinkable – but it´s true). To communicate with your friends you mostly wrote on their wall, and that probably was seen (and could not be remarked on by) few other people.
All of the messages that users suspected were ‘leaked’ private messages turned out, in fact, to be utterly public wall-to-wall communications, shared openly with whatever mutual friends the two messagers had at the time – and there’s the thing, because we generally all had a lot fewer of them too.
Now, Timeline for personal profiles has been available for nearly a year. Some of us grabbed at it as soon as we could, others are still being reluctantly forced to make the switch at random times Facebook specifies. And yes, you can click or scroll back on your Timeline to see exactly what you were posting and sharing on the site back in 2007 or whatever (go on, it´s fun, one of the things I really like about Facebook in fact). It’s much easier with Timeline to jump to wherever you like by date, whereas on the old-style wall you had to keep scrolling and scrolling – the information was all there, just less easy to get to.
So, if you go flicking back through your Timeline and think ooh, probably wouldn’t have sent that message or shared that comment so publically, it´s easy to hide it, delete it or alter the privacy settings for it. But, if you see a rumour that there´s been some kind of breach, and actually it´s more than a rumour when the offline press picks it up… well, you might quite reasonably interpret that innocently publically made comment as something quite different. You might even decide to share that news with your friends, for their own good… So, it’s pretty easy to see how this one got started in the first place, and understand why it gained traction so fast.
However, the French National Commission on Computing and Liberty (CNIL) has concluded its investigations and determined that NO privacy breach at any point took place – and these guys and their counterparts in many other countries would simply LOVE to get something on Facebook if they could possibly make it stick. Whilst they can accuse Facebook of lack of transparency, changing the rules, forcing users to take responsibility for their own privacy and for being generally confusing…. They have not actually broken any data protection laws or their own privacy agreements with their users.
And too be fair to Facebook, whilst they have been pretty cavalier about a lot of privacy and sharing issues in some ways, they did very strongly urge all users to check their Timelines for potentially overly-revealing posts – even offering a two week amnesty to encourage this.
Still worried? Check your privacy settings out now. In the drop-down menu in the upper right-hand corner of your Facebook profile, select “Privacy Settings”. Scroll to “Timeline and Tagging”, and click “Edit settings”; Now you can see if you’ve opted to make any of the posts on your Timeline “Public,” and you can change the privacy settings for these types of posts so that only friends (or no one at all if you are seriously worried and have major housekeeping to do first) can see them.
There’s also an option on your Privacy Settings page called “Limit the Audience for Past Posts.” Selecting that will make posts friends-only that had previously been either public or visible to friends of friends (which setting you might as well consider public, it´s potentially hundreds of thousands of people). In my opinion Facebook should have made this the default setting on the initial rollout of Timeline… but instead they left it up to us to take control of it and put it right.