Facebook denies exposing people's private messages as it faces French fury

Facebook denies exposing people's private messages as it faces French fury

Summary: The social network is being hauled up for questioning by French privacy officials over the alleged publication of old private messages on people's timelines. However, the company says users are only seeing old wall posts.


Facebook has strenuously denied reports that old private messages are popping up in users' timelines on the site.

The reports appear to have originated in France, where Facebook says it rolled out the Timeline feature, on Monday. Facebook representatives will be hauled up before the French data protection agency, the CNIL, later on Tuesday.

Facebook Timeline
Facebook has denied exposing people's private messages, after it rolled out its Timeline feature worldwide. Image: Facebook

"Press reports have spread the word about a bug that caused messages from before 2009 to be posted on the Facebook accounts of French users," the French privacy watchdog said in a statement (in French). "CNIL will later today meet Facebook France officials to clarify the situation and the online posts."

However, according to the social network, the old messages people are seeing were wall posts, not private messages.

"A small number of users raised concerns after what they believed to be private messages appeared on their Timeline," Facebook said. "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."

A spokesman for the social network told ZDNet on Tuesday that Facebook had seen such reports before, in late 2011, and they were false then as well. He added that Facebook's systems treat private messages and wall posts very differently on a technical level, and it is simply not possible for one message type to bleed into the other's stream.

Facebook's spokesman also suggested that people used to carry out personal conversations on their walls through back-and-forth posts, particularly before comments and like buttons were introduced.

However, despite Facebook's denials, people continue to report seeing old private messages on their timelines.

Topics: Privacy, Social Enterprise

David Meyer

About David Meyer

David Meyer is a freelance technology journalist. He fell into journalism when he realised his musical career wouldn't pay the bills. David's main focus is on communications, as well as internet technologies, regulation and mobile devices.

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  • Blast from the past

    Has been my experience of Facebook's timeline; things that had long vanished off the bottom of the wall are easily viewable even on phones due to the drop down list, and this mention of facebook reminded me how we used it in the early days; all those games you used to add to your page...

    Now like most people i know from the early adopters (2006 hell yeah I was cool... Or still at university, you choose) Facebook has gone from a social tool to a Bit of a liability and is rarely used with the exception of mass information - leavings, weddings, birthdays, etc. I probably now check facebook around twice a week - usually twice on one day.

    In the early days (late summer 2006 for british students) facebook was university only - so we did everything on it; no one had unlimited texts or calls, so every night out was being organised on facebook within a month of the autumn (fall) term, and I probably had around 300 facebook "friends" because you added everyone so you could contact them. Of course facebook was very different and your wall page was usually full of the biggest load of bloat ever; pictures, drawings, games all showed up there.

    About the time i graduated, facebook made a key change; my family members could now use facebook, then my employers could use it. It went from a university social club to the real world of consequences and responsability. Like many of my peers, just as the masses exploded onto facebook, so we retreated, and the types of communication changed. We threw a christmas reunion party after graduation, and even by then it was arranged by good old texts and whilst the photos were still shared by facebook, it was through a private group; the days of posting hillarious drunkard photos was gone when everyone could see them.

    Why is this information relevant? Well I think facebook is a great social experiment, to see how our use of it has changed as it has grown. I happen to believe facebook that these are not private messages, but messages people didn't use to mind being public; i've checked my timeline and There's lots of messages from ex's my girlfriend isn't happy about, old friends and such. Personally I've not seen many of these messages in years and it's been quite nice and nostalgic to look back over a few, but I can see why some people aren't happy - say you're now friends with your boss because you dare not reject them, but three years ago you wern't that professional?

    It's the biggest asset and curse of facebook; it doesn't forget. I think sometimes people don't always think before they act online. For myself the days of free facebook ended around four years ago. I suspect for some they are still learning that modern facebook comes with all the social trappings of the real world.
  • Can databases even bleed into each other?!

    I'm surprised no tech writer has yet pointed out that Facebook private messages and wall posts are most definitely held in separate databases, meaning the script for private messages pulls data from tables in database y, and the script for wall posts pulls from tables in database z, they can't bleed into each other.

    Facebook has almost a billion users so they must have a staggering number of little databases...

    I'm no expert, I just started messing around with web design so I have a passing knowledge of MySQL, but I'm surprised that no tech writer/database administrator hasn't stepped in to do some technical kung-fu and explain if such a leak is even possible. Isn't that what tech writers are for?!
    Jonathan Lotz-Lenglain
    • Having worked a bit in MySQL...

      ...I find your comment quite on track with reality. This should have come from within FB itself.

      Are they going to admit to vulnerability? I can't see it.
    • famous last words of the software developer:

      "it is simply not possible"

      It doesn't really matter whether separate databases can "bleed into each other". Ever seen a script get pointed in the wrong direction? Debug code to access both get left in by mistake? There are many kinds of bugs that could cause something like this. It may or may not have happened, but it's not impossible.