Friday 19 December 2014

Has the Tech Generation's biggest nightmare come true?

Published 07/10/2012 | 05:00

I heard all my Facebook private messages had become public, but was I just being paranoid, wonders Niamh Horan

What's your worst nightmare? For most people, having your private thoughts posted on a billboard for the world to see, those secret conversations you have with your nearest and dearest, bandied about for all to have a nosey through would be pretty high up there.

Call it First World problems; call it whatever you like, but for 'Generation Tech' that terrible scenario came home to roost last week.

On Tuesday night I received a call from an old friend. The last time his name popped up on my screen it was to bear bad news, and so I answered by joking that he only rings when he has something awful to share.

"Well kind of," he laughed uneasily.

And then in his typical understated tone he broke the news.

"Niamh I think the whole of Facebook can see your private messages."

There were several shrill shrieks as I skated across the wooden floorboards up to my bedroom before flipping my laptop out on to the bed. It was all the messages from 2009 and before, he told me. Facebook had supposedly messed up.

Clambering to boot up the computer, my mind raced through all the stupid things we ever say when we think that no one is looking.

"In 2007 I fell out with her, 2008 I was flirting with him," I sped through a mental file of my social life from the last few years.

"Oh God no, make it stop," I winced.

And there they were -- in black and white. On my public timeline.

I raced through them.

Some were harmless, but others I specifically remember having never publicly posted.

The caller showed me how to delete them from my page -- and within 30 seconds my social life had been saved from the brink of the abyss.

That night I called around a small group of

friends and shared the news, receiving the same reaction from each.

Mark Zuckerberg was cursed to an eternity in Hell, pages were suspended and they all concluded the same: their private mails had been published.

So it came as a surprise to me when online commentators told me afterwards that it was all in my head.

You see, Facebook had released a statement stating that these messages were publicly posted by users several years ago. The company claimed that the comments were never private in the first place -- it must have just slipped our minds.

A spokesperson for Facebook said: "A small number of users raised concerns after what they believed to be private messages appeared on their timeline.

"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."

It was, Facebook felt, our paranoia playing tricks on us.

Interesting.

How then does the social networking giant explain the fact that my closest friend had messages on her timeline from an acquaintance saying, "Aww, I love it when you private mail me -- it makes me feel so special"?

Or another from a girl giving out about her father?

I know this girl; her dad is well known too. She is a very private person. And these comments would never be something that she would publicly display.

But no, we're just being silly, paranoid eejits, falling for the latest online prank according to Zuckerberg and Co. Sure if we were right, it would be an unmitigated disaster for Facebook.

Users would switch off in their droves, accounts would be suspended with a domino affect; no one would trust it again.

Indeed.

So just to be on the safe side and if you don't want to put all of your trust into the folks at Facebook, here's a tip: when you're in your own timeline, click on the year on the right (2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012) and you'll see a box with a bunch of friends' messages and a header that says '123 people', for example, 'have written on your timeline'.

Hover over the right side until you see the pencil. Click on it then select the option 'remove from timeline'.

Repeat this for each year.

You might get a nasty surprise at some of the posts you come across.

But then again, you could just be concocting it in your head.

As I said -- the stuff of nightmares.

If anyone needs me, I'll be on Twitter.

Sunday Independent

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