For just over a week last month (between the 18th and 27th to be exact), Facebook’s system automatically changed the default audience for 14 million users’ posts to 'Public', even if the user had previously had the default set it to friends only or similar.
That, obviously, could lead to a range of problems – there’s a reason people choose not to share their content publicly.
To fix this, Facebook will soon alert all affected users with a notification prompt, calling on them to review their posts.
To clarify, this was not all users, but 14 million of the platform’s 1.4 billion daily active users. That likely doesn’t lessen the impact of the top line story – that Facebook has another privacy issue on its hands – but still, it does put the problem in some context. The affected users were also not from a specific region, but spread across the world.
Facebook’s Chief Privacy Officer Erin Egan explained the issue to TechCrunch:
“We recently found a bug that automatically suggested posting publicly when some people were creating their Facebook posts. We have fixed this issue and starting today we are letting everyone affected know and asking them to review any posts they made during that time. To be clear, this bug did not impact anything people had posted before – and they could still choose their audience just as they always have. We’d like to apologize for this mistake”.
If you are among the affected users, Facebook’s built a tool to help you review your content.
Essentially, Facebook’s doing all it can to rectify the situation, and they’re trying to be totally transparent about such issues. But it’s not great timing – as a quick reminder:
- In March, Facebook announced that data mining firm Cambridge Analytica had misused Facebook user data to target voters in the 2016 US Presidential Election, and potentially others
- Also in March, Facebook announced a review of all apps that had access to in-depth user data prior to changes to their access process (thus far, Facebook has suspended over 200 apps as part of this investigation)
- In April, Facebook suspended another data firm for conducting similar practices as Cambridge Analytica, harvesting personal data without user permission
- Also in April, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg faced US Congress to address questions over privacy concerns - possibly raising even more questions
- In June, The New York Times reported that Facebook had private data-sharing arrangements with approximately 60 phone manufacturers, which were in place between 2007 and 2012. Stemming further from that, among those phone companies that had access to such insight were Chinese providers, including Huawei, which has close ties to the Chinese Government
And these are only the headline reports - there have been other, smaller concerns that have also been raised, and further questions about what Facebook data can be used for, and whether the company should be under tighter regulatory control for such measures.
As you can see, the last thing Facebook needs it yet another privacy issue – but then again, Facebook usage hasn’t started to tail off yet, and there’s no definitive indication that it will, despite these issues.
Why? Because convenience. Because everyone uses Facebook, and to stop using it would mean missing out on updates from friends and family and be left out of the loop. Sure, there are privacy issues, but your data's being tracked and uploaded everywhere, right? If you’ve got nothing to hide, why worry?
This, as we’ve noted previously, is the major issue in the Facebook data privacy debate – that people simply don’t understand what the implications of such data usage could be. So what if some company knows I like basketball? That doesn’t mean anything in itself. And that’s right, it doesn’t, but when you consider the vast amount of indicators you’re inputting into Facebook, each and every day, and the capacity Facebook has to match those behaviors against billions of other users, that’s where things get a lot more complex.
All of your little actions contribute to your digital footprint, which can be used to identify your psychological leanings and behaviors when compared against others on a wide enough scale.
In the wrong hands, that can be extremely influential, but as noted, it’s also easy to dismiss. Because we want to use Facebook, and Instagram, and Messenger, and really, every other social app and digitally connected tool which is conducting its own data tracking.
Definitely, Facebook doesn’t need another privacy issue, even one on a relatively smaller scale like this. But will it have an impact on usage? I’m yet to see anything that suggests it will, at least at this stage.