French privacy watchdog dismisses reports of Facebook bug

Users did not realize the messages they posted on friends' Walls were public, and their visibility to all was not a bug, CNIL found

By , IDG News Service |  IT Management

An investigation by the French privacy watchdog has found no truth to worldwide press reports last week that a Facebook bug was exposing old private messages to public view. Users had not grasped the public nature of the personal messages they were posting, and the "bug" was in their understanding of Facebook's privacy settings, the French National Commission on Computing and Liberty (CNIL) said late Tuesday.

French newspaper Metro reported on Sept. 24 that a Facebook user had discovered that what he thought were private messages from 2009 or earlier were now appearing in his public timeline. The newspaper reported that its staff had observed the same phenomenon in their accounts, and claimed a bug in Facebook's code was leaking private messages. As the news report was repeated worldwide, other Facebook users made the same observations and claims, forcing Facebook to issue a denial.

After an investigation lasting a little more than a week, CNIL agreed with Facebook, concluding that the problem was with users' memories, not with the social networking site.

The allegedly leaked data consisted entirely of messages from Wall to Wall, and none of the messages concerned had been sent via Facebook's private messaging system, the privacy watchdog concluded after compiling reports from numerous Internet users, and interviewing Facebook managers in France and elsewhere.

CNIL did not dispute the personal content of the messages appearing on the timeline.

However, it said, "The users had the impression they were sending private messages when they sent messages from Wall to Wall."

There were a number of reasons Facebook users might have been confused, it said.

For one, Facebook functioned differently before 2010 than it does today. In particular, Wall-to-Wall messages, while still public, were much less visible than today, and so users saw them as more private, CNIL said.

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