How safe is your privacy?

Facebook have recently been caught up in scandal with users concerning their privacy policies.

Infamous for its lax controls on what it shares, Mark Zuckerburg’s creation has hit the headlines once more for allegedly revealing messages intended to be private.

Mainly confined to the years 2007-2009, users have reported seeing messages friends previously sent to their inboxes available for public view on their timeline.

Although Facebook adamantly deny the reports, users remain convinced, with many vowing to quit the social network.

First raised by French tabloid newspaper MetroFrance nearly a month ago, a flood of similar reports have emerged worldwide.

Despite claims that the messages were in fact wall posts, sent during a time pre-“like” and “comment” functions, hundreds suggest otherwise.

Messages sent by friends are only available to view on your profile, but a simple matter of checking their profiles will allegedly display your replies. A catastrophe if proven true, it has potential to lose the social network hundreds of members.

With Facebook promising the reports are false and users up in arms, it’s difficult to get the truth of the situation. At least it’s the only time Facebook have come a cropper about privacy, right?

Oh, if only. Their problems started almost the minute the site was created. In 2006, when Facebook first launched the “news feed” we see daily, controversy arose after users weren’t given the option to control who could view their profile and updates.

Student Ben Parr created a group called “Students Against Facebook News Feed”, which accrued 300,000 members and eventually gained an apology from Zuckerburg himself.

“We really messed this one up,” he said. “We didn’t build in the proper privacy controls … a big mistake on our part.”

2007 saw the introduction of Beacon, a Facebook advertising system that tracked what users purchased from partner websites. Shockingly, it applied to those who weren’t even Facebook members.

The information was even readily published on friends’ timelines, revealing users’ purchase history to all. Following a website-wide outcry, Zuckerburg shut down Beacon in 2009.

A turning point, you cry? Alas, 2009 saw no change in luck for Mark. Altered privacy settings meant that sharing information with “everyone” became the default setting. News feed privacy controls, which were implemented after 2006’s outcry, were removed.

After petitions from groups including the American Civil Liberties Union, Facebook quickly included a guide to privacy settings for their users.

It even sparked an investigation by the US Federal Trade Commission, as well as Canada’s privacy commission. Scary stuff. Facebook caved, and agreed to give users “clear and prominent notice” when information was shared.

Yet, soon after, a glitch in 2010 caused private messages on Facebook to be sent to unintended recipients.

Later that year, a coding error opened the messages to others. The Wall Street Journal revealed that Facebook and other social networking sites “have been sending data to advertising companies that could be used to find consumers’ names and other personal details, despite promises they don’t share such information without consent.” Phew. What a busy couple of years.

The unpopular timeline concept was introduced in 2011, and while users initially had the choice to opt out, it was made clear the changes would soon be mandatory. Information that had been buried under years of Facebooking was unearthed, and details on friends’ walls were unable to be deleted.

Passionately disliked by many, a large proportion of users avoided the change for as long as possible, before it was systematically implemented to all members of the social network.

The function that allowed you to click back to a certain year and reveal old statuses, tagged photos, and how many people had posted on your wall was controversial; the nostalgia aspect quickly wore off as the embarassing consequences dawned on users.

Finally, (yes, finally), we saw problems with the “like” button. Widely loved by users, the “like” button initially landed Facebook in hot water.

Nowadays primarily used to show approval of a status, or compliment a photo, users who had clicked the button for products began seeing their name and photo used to advertise the relevant product, including a hilarious case involving a man named Nick Begus.

After liking a 55-gallon barrel of personal lubricant as a joke, his friends saw his name popping up to promote the product. His sarcastic comment “For Valentine’s Day.And every day. For the rest of your life” even ended up forming part of an ad for Amazon, who sold the barrel. Be that a warning for all of you who are partial to a sarcastic “like”, or a drunken “frape”.

Considering the fact that Facebook started through a privacy breach, the aforementioned events are relatively unsurprising. In 2003, Zuckerburg hacked into the Harvard photo directories to create “Facemash”, an attractiveness rating site, almost leading to his expulsion.

It’s now reported that one out of every 13 of the world’s population is on Facebook, and its total users are around 500,000,000 as of 2011.

For a man of such a young age with such a successful career behind him, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that he plans to run his network the way he started it. He hasn’t been shy about his views on privacy, claiming recently that the site’s lack of privacy controls is simply a response to changing social norms.

“People have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people. That social norm is just something that has evolved over time.”

Just lucky it’s not your private messages Facebook are revealing, eh, Mark?

So what does the latest blunder mean for Facebook? Despite heavy denial, it does seem odd that thousands of users would be outraged at the same problem at the same time.

It’s also important to consider that we, as users, don’t have the problem of PR and damage control to consider. But with Facebook seemingly determined to deny the rumours, we may never reach a conclusion.

Tightening your privacy controls and limiting what people can see on your profile slims down your chances of encountering a red-faced blunder, but perhaps the only real way we can protect ourselves is in what we post.

Avoid embarrassing comments, incriminating pictures and too much personal information. Even avoid intimate private messages (no more cyber-sex, boys and girls).

The intention of keeping them private is apparently lost on the bigwigs at Facebook, so do yourself a favour and be careful what you write. Have some barriers, or you could soon see yourself as the new face of 55 gallons of lubricant.


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August 2022
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