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Did Facebook Reveal Your Private Messages?

The company claims that newly-posted messages from before 2009 are not private. This may be true but people are still freaked out.

Posted on September 24, 2012, at 3:39 p.m. ET

The Facebook oversharing scandal began a day ago in France, as users (and French media) reported that private messages from before 2009 were being publicly displayed on people's Timelines. Today, Facebook itself denies that there was a security breach, giving a statement that the company's engineers investigated the complaints and "found that the messages were older wall posts that had always been visible on the users' profile pages."

In an email, a spokesman reiterated that private messages were not being displayed, noting that if you could like or comment on a story, it was public.

This hasn't stopped people from freaking out, though — with good reason. Until now, Timeline events before 2009 feature scant information, with only, say, the date someone joined. With this latest PR disaster/rollout, the new Timelines are extremely detailed, a real blast from the past. And completely devoid of context. Flattened out, the list of old messages reads like some bad transcript of a one-sided conversation — which is exactly what it is. It also becomes clear when looking at the rollout that Facebook in, say, 2007 was a vastly different beast in 2009. It was a much smaller network, expectations of privacy were not nearly as discussed or understood. It's easy to see why people thought their private messages were posted.

In the comment section of stories from Slate, TechCrunch and more, people are claiming that their messages are definitely private. But as I took to Facebook to chat with friends whose Timelines I could see (even if they couldn't), it was clear that remembering whether you sent a private message or wrote on someone's wall in 2008 was no easy task. Even in my own, newly-visible pre-2009 Timeline, I am frankly baffled. How could these messages NOT be private? Was there some kind of setting that made me think they were only visible to our mutual friends, maybe?

If Facebook indeed had (or has) breached the security of the private messages, this would be cataclysmic, precisely the kind of thing that would make years of rumblings about security issue front-page news. For now, the situation is murky: it's hard to say what our understanding about privacy was in messages exchanged before Facebook became behemoth. But as I cut-and-pasted messages to a friend who couldn't see his own Timeline, he joked, "Get off my wall now, Reyhan." It was just too intrusive.

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.