Facebook Confirms Scanning Messages but Denies Publishing Them on Timelines


By Angela Millan Epstein
I am coming to the realization that we are married to Facebook and we have to deal with it one day at a time. Or shall I say, one post at a time. The media phenomenon has become, for personal communications and information, as pervasive as electricity and it is playing a pivotal role in our lives. We evolve with the company, as much as the company evolves with us, at least for now.
So the initial rumors turned-complains and allegations that Facebook’s private messages were inadvertently published in the users timeline, between 2007 and 2009, especially in Europe, should be honestly discussed by the company. But most importantly, users should be aware of the privacy issues that involve a complex technology platform, and decisions made in a company that is permanently experimenting, and in search of revenue.
The French site Metro France reported the problem first, and soon other outlets around the world found users whose private messages had been published in their timelines. The outlets published not only interviews but also pictures of dates and times of the events. The company denied the claims and in a statement to the BBC it said that “Facebook is satisfied that there has been no breach of user privacy,” adding that “no mechanism” had ever been created that would allow a private message to be published onto a user’s wall or timeline.
However, this is not what users continue to claim and we still hear reports of the problem, as recent as the beginning of October when Poppy Dinsey, owner of the fashion social network What I Wore Today, claimed “there are messages I’ve got on my wall that are most definitely private messages! From 2006 all the way up to 2012.” So, clearly, the issue is out there and, as we say in Spanish, “No podemos tapar el sol con una mano” or “we can’t cover the sun with one hand” meaning, we can’t hide the facts.
On a similar issue, and after the Polish startup Killswitch.me demonstrated with a video that sending a link in a Facebook private message increases the Like counter on the link’s originating third-party website, Facebook confirmed to reporter Emil Protalinsky that links sent to private messages were indeed being scanned in order to increase the number of corresponding Likes for those pages. But not only that, the company accepted that in the process the number count for “Like” of the private messages scanned, increases by two. So we face here two different potential issues: privacy and credibility, or numbers counting; however we want to name it.
In response to this latest issue, Facebook sent this statement to Protalinsky “We did recently find a bug with our social plugins where at times the count for the Share or Like goes up by two, and we are working on fix to solve the issue now. To be clear, this only affects social plugins off of Facebook and is not related to Facebook Page likes. This bug does not impact the user experience with messages or what appears on their timelines.”
But if Facebook is scanning our private messages to count the Like for links, are we exposed publically by sending those links in private, or is our name associated with that information in any way?
Apparently no, according to what the company sent Emil Protalinsky in the following statement: “Absolutely no private information has been exposed and Facebook is not automatically Liking any Facebook Pages on a user’s behalf. Many websites that use Facebook’s ‘Like’, ‘Recommend’, or ‘Share’ buttons also carry a counter next to them. This counter reflects the number of times people have clicked those buttons and also the number of times people have shared that page’s link on Facebook. When the count is increased via shares over private messages, no user information is exchanged, and privacy settings of content are unaffected. Links shared through messages do not affect the Like count on Facebook Pages.”
In any event, as I said at the beginning, this is an evolving social experiment, and we should deal with it, one post at a time, and be alert. I am still curious as to what is going to happen when one wrong command to the site’s automation makes those “private” messages “public” or when the algorithms instruct the machines that it should be the case.
Angela Millan Epstein is a former News Correspondent and Anchor for Univision and NBC’s Canal de Noticias’, has published in several sites in the Americas and worked in content and technology with IBM and ScreamingMedia.