In September this year, Facebook users worldwide feared for their friendships, relationships and reputations, as rumours circulated that their old private messages were resurfacing as public goods. Here, Scotcampus examines what would happen if there was any truth behind the rumour.
By Jennifer Lynn
There’s always one, isn’t there? Someone on your Facebook timeline who sees someone on their Facebook timeline post some absurd rumour about this, that, or the next thing, along with a series of instructions on how to stop it happening to you. You ignore it and get on with your life, safe in the knowledge that your friends are daft paranoid wrecks, and that you. are. above. that.
However, what if the rumour in question had the power to open one billion cans of worms? That is, a can of worms for each and every Facebook user, when their private mails land on their public timelines for the entire world to see. Would you take action then?
On September 23rd 2012 these ‘rumours’ began to do the rounds, after users in France and the US reported that their old private mails, from 2009 and beyond, had surfaced on their timelines. Facebook were quick to deny the bug, with Fred Wolens of Facebook Policy Communications stating, “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.”
So it’s all good, right? You’ve stopped frantically deleting your mail and panicking that your best mate will find out you had a ‘moment’ with her boyfriend in Ibiza last summer? Apparently not.
Despite the internet giant’s denial, many of you still weren’t convinced. “My friends were all posting instructions on how to stop your private messages becoming public,” says Ailsa, 22. “I never checked to see if my private messages were showing up on my wall, but I followed the instructions anyway, just in case.”
It’s not the first time that Facebook has come under fire for an alleged breach in privacy. Back in 2010
the social networking site admitted that some of its most popular apps, such as Farmville and Mafia Wars, supplied information generated from user identity numbers to advertising and online tracking companies. But would the private/public message scandal even be possible?
Not according to Fred Wolens. In his public statement he said, “While not quite a technical impossibility, these systems [private mail and public timeline posts] are run on two separate backends, which would require a non-trivial amount of work for this bug to be real.”
And it’s a good job. According to Kunle Campbell, award winning digital marketing strategist and director of Fuzz One Media (Fuzzone.com), a private-to-public message scandal could have a catastrophic effect on Facebook, and subsequently on the entire internet.
“Users of Facebook expect its mailing system to have similar privacy and security features of standard email services,” he explains. “The impact of publicising private messages would spark a mass migration of users to alternative social media platforms like Google+, Twitter or even Path.
“As a number of people take refuge in the safety and privacy of Facebook, the image of the internet as we know it could be tarnished, as it would become a less trusted place. It would stunt the growth of social media as we know it today.”
Scary stuff- who knew Facebook could have such a profound impact on the world? However, one place we all know such outpourings of confidential messages would have an effect is in our personal lives. A quick skim over my own private mail doesn’t give away much- I save the juicy stuff for emails, potential hackers- but judging from my own friends’ blind panic I’d say I’m in the minority.
“Right does this whole private mails getting exposed malarkey have any truth to it?” reads one post. Answers range from the sensible, “It would breach privacy law in the UK if they did that,” to the simple, “I would be fucked if they did that.” From cyber affairs to plain old bitching, the internet would be filled with our indiscretions.
“My life would actually be over if anyone saw my private mail,” says Aimee*, 21. “Me and a guy I used to work with sent each other suggestive messages for months, even though he had a girlfriend. We did eventually sleep together, which is obvious from the messages, but she never found out. This would change everything.”
You could argue that our own stupid mistakes and bitchy behaviour would be the real catalysts behind the hypothetic post-private mail gate crisis, but let’s face it, shit happens and we can’t keep it to ourselves. Gossip once saved for face-to-face conversations is now transmitted via text message, email, Facebook mail and Twitter direct messages without a second thought… unless you’re Vernon Kay, of course.
Since it’s unlikely that we’ll all become saints overnight and, even if we did, the damage is already in our outboxes, we turn to the law in the hope of keeping our dirty laundry out of view. Shona Harper, senior associate at SNR Denton law firm (Snrdenton.com), says, “If Facebook had committed a data breach by publishing private posts to the general Facebook public, which it firmly denies, then it would have breached both local data protection law and its own contract with their users.
“The rules on data security breaches will be tightened up over the next few years, so all social media organisations will face greater legal regulation. As can be seen from this example, it seems they will also face tougher user expectations as well.”
With no proof to suggest that there is any truth in this latest bug rumour, we and Mark Zuckerberg can rest easy- for now. How to avoid the Facebook fear in future? Keep your gossip off the internet!
What would YOU be scared of your private mail revealing?
Sarah*, 22: One night my male cousin was staying over at mine. We were both really drunk after
a night out, and he got in bed beside me, and tried it on. I kicked him out and we’ve never told anyone, but he mailed me to apologise, so the evidence would be all over my timeline if the Facebook rumour was true.
Jenny, 29: My mails aren’t that bad really, but a boy I used to see who now lives in Australia sometimes sends me dirty messages. Because of the time difference, he’s in the pub drunk and horny, and I’m sitting at my desk at work trying not to laugh!
James, 21: I’d probably get sacked from my graduate job if my boss knew what I was saying about him in my Facebook mail. Don’t get me wrong, I like the job, but he’s generally just a bit of a prick. I have a lot of less-than-flattering names for him, which I don’t think he’d be too happy about!
Becky, 19: In one message I refer to a girl from uni as, “a fat cow with trotters”. Think I was getting my farm animals mixed up, but she’d probably flatten me all the same if she knew.
*Names have been changed to protect the guilty