- Facebook acknowledged on Thursday that a bug resulted in some users’ status updates defaulting to public, even if they had been set to private.
- This is one of the few times Facebook has proactively disclosed a privacy issue affecting millions of people.
- It signals a change of approach following the humbling Cambridge Analytica scandal.
- It remains unclear whether Silicon Valley firms as a whole will begin shining a light into their own black boxes.
Facebook is finally becoming more transparent about bugs and leaks that affect user data.
The company has proactively confessed to a bug that resulted in setting some users’ status updates to public by default, even if they had previously been set to private. The flaw meant some 14 million people posted public updates without realizing they were visible to the entire internet.
Obviously, the news in itself is not positive for Facebook. Trust in the social-media company is low thanks to years of privacy scandals including, most recently, the Cambridge Analytica saga. Even a comparatively small bug chips away at what trust remains.
But this is one of the few times in which Facebook has confessed to a privacy issue before journalists or researchers have found it.
This year alone, journalists were responsible for uncovering the Cambridge Analytica scandal, that some third-party Facebook apps leaked user information, and that Facebook had extensive data-sharing partnerships with handset makers. While investigating the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Facebook did proactively confess that malicious actors could scrape user profile information, a bug that affected most of its 2 billion users.
It’s not just Facebook; this is all part of a broader trend of news outlets highlighting how bad tech companies are at policing their own platforms, usually by finding and flagging bad content. The Times newspaper in the UK highlighted, for example, how brands were accidentally funding terrorist propaganda on YouTube. Business Insider discovered that YouTube Kids was suggesting conspiracy-theory videos to its young viewers. Reporters even have a nickname for this: content-moderation journalism.
With the latest announcement, Facebook has evidently decided to get out in front of the stories. In an apologetic post about the privacy bug, the company wrote: “We’ve heard loud and clear that we need to be more transparent about how we build our products and how those products use your data – including when things go wrong. And that is what we are doing here.”
- Aaron P. Bernstein/Reuters
This is the year when Mark Zuckerberg has appeared before members of the US Congress and of the European Parliament to explain the impact of his platform on democratic processes. Lawmakers have questioned whether he understands the immense power and responsibility of Facebook.
And Facebook’s chief technology officer, Mike Schroepfer, said the Cambridge Analytica scandal caused the biggest cultural shift in a decade inside the company. Clearly, Facebook has revisited what it should be disclosing and when.
Not everyone will be convinced by this change of heart and, clearly, it’s come about as a result of media, public, and political pressure. It remains to be seen whether other technology firms will adopt the practice. Google, for example, has tripped up on policing its platform, with The Times and Business Insider recently finding that the autocomplete feature exposed the names of victims in high-profile sexual-assault cases.
If Facebook begins to shine a torch into the black box of algorithms and data, it may be the first step to rebuild public trust in Silicon Valley.