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September 25th, 2012

Can Users See Old Private Messages on their Timelines?

Has Facebook been posting your old private messages as wall posts in what would be a massive privacy breach, or have Facebook users forgotten how cavalier they were with their privacy all those years ago?

If you hearing rumours like the ones below on Facebook, then you’re not alone.


“Facebook is publishing your old private messages as public wall posts. I’m a digital marketing manager, so if i say it’s true, it is.
Go back in your timeline to 2007 or so onwards.
See that box that says ‘X people have posted on NAME timeline’ – hit ‘Hide from Timeline’

and


Dear Facebookers – Your private inbox messages are now visible for all to see… . This could get VERY awkward, very quickly…this is a new change from Facebook as of yesterday. Don’t believe me? Read your timeline from 2000′s…yikes! They look like wall posts…..they are not!
there’s an easy fix–when you’re in your own timeline, just click on the year on the right (2007, 2008, 2009) and you’ll see a box with a bunch of friends’ messages and a header that says 89 people have written on Brian’s timeline–hover over the right until you see the pencil, click and select hide from timeline. do that for each year. This is for real friends. (Post this so all your friends can update theirs as well!)

The Facebook community is once again in uproar over what appears to be the latest privacy controversy to hit the social networking site. But is everything as it seems, and is Facebook really to blame here?

Okay, so I did what almost every technology blogger has been doing today. Going over archaic wall posts from many moons ago, to see if my private messages of yonder were being published on my timeline for all my friends to see.

And what I found was astonishing.

Astonishing because my initial reaction was that the privacy breach had actually occurred. What I saw before me were posts (both from me and friends) that I would never consider for a second to publish onto my timeline. We’re talking about postal addresses, cell phone numbers, holiday plans and other personal details that would have any would-be identity fraudster rolling on the floor in hysterics. These must have been private messages… right?

But when I thought about it a little longer, I realised that these wall posts, available to all my friends, were not private messages on the loose at all, they were actually wall posts! It appears my initial reaction to what I was seeing is one that has been shared by many other Facebook users – the problem being that way back in 2007-2008, when Facebook was still very much a novelty, privacy was simply not as important as it is today, and our digital inhibitions seemed to be very much lower in relation to what we were willing to post onto the website. Stuff my friends and I posted 6 years ago would be considered today to be unfathomably stupid, on many different social and privacy levels.

This was back in the day where Facebook comments and “Likes” did not exist, and users would communicate wall-to-wall, swapping ends of the conversation, making many older wall posts appear like the to-and-fro you would expect with private messages.
But were we really thinking about the privacy consequences when we did this? Before we realised just how long Facebook was here to stay and how big a part it would end up playing in our lives.

Now whilst I may have come to terms with my naïve 2007-self, many Facebook users seem incredibly adamant that they have indeed seen their private messages displayed on their timelines from all those years back, even though Facebook have now completely dismissed any notion that there was any privacy breach.

So what is happening? Are Facebook covering up their mistakes? Perhaps many users, new at the time to Facebook, believed they were sending private messages to each other when they were actually swapping wall posts, and now the past has come back to haunt them. Perhaps some Facebook users are overestimating their memories? What do you think? Personally I’m leaning towards the latter. I can barely remember what or how I was posting last month, let alone 5 or 6 years ago. And when I first joined Facebook and began to swap wall posts with friends, was I really aware of the privacy ramifications to an online social world that was totally unfamilliar to me? No, not really. And it seems that I was not alone.

Either way, despite the controversy these rumours have caused, one good thing has come out of all this. Thousands of Facebook users worldwide are going over their old messages and hiding away embarrassing and potentially troublesome wall posts, and creating a safer Facebook along the way.

UPDATE: Yes we have released a sequel article to this post which you can visit here – Facebook Private Messages on Timeline Scare – How did it Garner so much Panic?


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  • Mary

    Hey Craig,

    I suspect you’ve got a lot of replies rebuffing your post, but I’m going to add mine to that list anyway.

    In 2008, my boyfriend (now husband) and I were in the new stages of our relationship, and therefore, checking each other’s FB Walls was a daily occurrence. I can assure you, there are things published on his wall now, that absolutely, unequivocally, were NOT on his wall when we were dating. If they were, there would have been some memorable discussions about these messages from his ex-girlfriend! Four years later, I don’t give a shit, but I would have then, and there’s no way I wouldn’t have seen them (as there are several).

    I’m just sharing this story, because I believe users privacy has been mistakenly shared, and this is not surprising, but disappointing nonetheless. Perhaps this requires further investigating!

    • thatsnonsense.com

      Mary
      We would be surprised if Facebook were lying about this issue (quite a risky tactic which would likely result in them getting caught out in the technology blogging community). They have confirmed no breach has happened. Though of course we and others are still investigating.

    • Maria

      Okay what about a suggestion to validate this.

      1. Take a screenshot of a few “supposed” PMs that is appearing on the wall post.

      2. Go to your inbox and find these PM’s

      3. Take a screenshot of the same messages that appeared in the wall post IN YOUR INBOX.

      4. If the wall post messages and inbox messages are exactly the same then it should validate it. If not then it should show it is a hoax.

      • thatsnonsense.com

        If only, Maria! But the problem many of claiming that the PM’s have moved from their inbox to their timeline!
        We know, frustrating right!?

  • Woody

    I was extremely surprised and disappointed to find that the claims were true. I found private messages displayed on my timeline and also on several other people’s profiles. These have now been hidden, but I have heard from numerous others, including IT professionals, that their privacy has been breached too. Facebook can “confirm no breach has happened” as much as they like but on this occasion they are mistaken. This issue needs to be publicised as widely and as clearly as possible so that any ensuing panic does not get dismissed as an opportunistic hoax. It is not a hoax, it is real.

    • thatsnonsense.com

      And yet to our knowledge no one on the Internet has been able to offer any evidence that a privacy breach has occurred..

  • Woody

    We are all on the Internet.

    My first reaction was to check your site alongside Sophos and Hoax Slayer. I came up dry.

    As a result I encouraged people not to believe the rumours and then I saw this post: http://www.rageagainsttheminivan.com/2012/09/facebookfail-fix-for-facebooks-private.html and checked again to find five years’ worth of private messages (not all, just some) on my profile page. I only saw other people’s messages to me, not mine to them, and opted to hide the lot even though it meant losing some public posts from my page too, as some of the messages were (or should have been) highly confidential, including private conversations with people who have never posted and would almost certainly never post on my profile.

    I’m frankly puzzled as to why there has been no mention of it on the usual security sites – perhaps everyone who knows about it has been as quick as I was to secure their messages and unwilling to take screenshots of private communications, and those who don’t haven’t seen anything. The fact this has happened to so many people I know suggests to me that it won’t be too long before someone working for one of the trusted security/rumour-busting sites experiences this on their own profile and perhaps that will be evidence enough to start taking this matter seriously.

  • Woody

    I was at a loss to understand how messages could have got tangled up with wallposts, and assumed exactly what Facebook have said about the backends. But nevertheless there actually WAS something to see there – some of my private messages. As it happens I have a background in IT and I am very, very well aware of the difference between a private message and a wall post. Even three years ago. I’m simply able to remember that kind of thing. Astonishing but true. I realise that me saying this is probably not going to make a blind bit of difference but to draw the conclusion that everyone reporting this is suffering some form of collective amnesia is both patronising and potentially dangerous.

    • thatsnonsense.com

      Not remembering the specifics of how you used Facebook 6 years ago is not amnesia Woody, if anything I’d say that was normal.

  • Woody

    I have just checked my email records in order to prove to myself that I am not going mad and sure enough, a couple of the posts I found on my timeline were sent as private messages. I hope someone will start to believe this soon.

    • AM

      Screenshots of your inbox and timeline or it never happened. Stop being stupid.

  • Do you research

    People, actually go through and check your facts.

    Do you really reckon facebook (now a public company with shareholders) could LIE about something like this? Don’t you think if your claims that they’re made public wouldn’t be on a NEWS special and there would be controversy surrounding it?

    Think it through.

  • Alison

    Just a note that while you can control visibility of other people’s posts on your wall – everything from the ‘only me’ option suggested in the circulating message to any other lists you have set up – in your privacy settings you can’t control who can see stuff you put on your friends’ walls.

    You can however view ‘old style’ conversations you and a friend might have had by choosing ‘see friendship’ in the dropdown menu when you’re on a friend’s timeline and clicking ‘wall posts’ in the menu on the left – that way you can then navigate to any messages you posted on THEIR wall (by going back to their timeline) that are now way more visible in timeline than they used to be, and delete them. Time consuming, but worth it if you’re worried about your half of an old wall-to-wall conversation being visible.

    Finally, as lots of people have suggested, it’s always worth planning for the worst – don’t put anything on a wall that you wouldn’t want your grandmother, mother in law or employer to see (or your friend’s grandmother, mother in law etc).

  • Crystal

    Woody…I just read your blog poster. Those messages that guy is seeing are posts his friends wrote on his wall from years ago, that he does not remember. Does he seriously thing someone would send him a private message with just “happy birthday”, or “Great columm”?

    Oh, and don’t forget, that person thinks they are private messages, just because some post on facebook said so. Rather than using some common sense and logic and realizing that those are just your friend’s posts all clumped togheter in an organized fashion, rather than seeing them all over the place.

    I personally have checked my timelines, my friend’s timelines, and nothing even remote to a private message I would have sent (or they sent to me) is on there. There is extremely sensitive stuff that my friends have written to me, and none of it has appeared (and all PM’s I ever got/sent were usually 2-3 paragraphs long). All of mine were people who legitimately wrote on my wall all those years ago when facebook was wall-to-wall posting.

    If you want, you can see all the conversations had between you and your friends. Go to your friend’s profile, and right beside “message” is a little star shaped thing. Click on that and click on “see friendship”. There you will see all the WALL posts between you two. THAT is what shows up in your timeline. Not private messages.

    What frightens me the most about this stuff is how gullible and “sheeplike” people are. You read one thing on facebook and immediately believe it without any research. IF Facebook truly had made the mistake, whether they lie about it or not, it would have been fixed by now anyway.

    And I agree with the above. Untill I see someone with screenshots of both their private message and that same message appearing on the wall, I am not buying it.

  • a hodges

    i just found out about this, and I checked my timeline, and in 2007 it shows what was definately a private message from one friend writing about her marriage being shakey…she would NEVER say that on a wall, even back then, we weren’t stupid 5 years ago. privacy has been breached, I’m spending time hiding it all but really, why do they continue to get away with it?

    • thatsnonsense.com

      It’s not about being stupid, just unfamilliar with Facebook and how social networking worked when he first experienced it. It was NOT a PM !

  • http://herself.bonni.net/ Bonni

    WHATEVER is “really going on” with these posts or private messages or whatever it is, there may well be serious privacy issues NOW with having very old wall posts (or PMs, or whatever) listed on your timeline. I’m personally getting a little fed up with the hoardes of “debunkers” who are scoffing and laughing and mocking those of us who are actually mildly concerned as to what FB is posting on our timelines. Maybe it’s not PMs, maybe it is (many people have said they are certain some of the “posts” were PMs), but you may as well check it and see if there’s anything there that you do NOT want permanently viewable by anyone with access to your timeline, yeah? It just makes sense to at least check and remove anything inappropriate, no matter how/where it came from.

  • Cathey

    I did check to see if this was true or not. I opened a separate window of my wall and than one of my private messages. I found many private messages that was posted on my time line. Facebook did breach a privacy law right than and there. I am not happy that they did this. I went and individually went and hide from the timeline each one that was a private message..


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