On Wednesday, Facebook began testing a new feature called "Memorable Stories" that shows users a number of their old status updates in the sidebar. According to Inside Facebook, the feature "pulls a random assortment of old status updates" to increase interaction and time-on-site. While the feature seems harmless, it has revealed an interesting bug: Your deleted status updates may not really be deleted.
We received a tip from a rather privacy-conscious reader that the feature was showing them updates from 2008 and 2009...even though they've made it a habit of deleting each and every update older than a day old for years now. According to Facebook, however, this was just a bug that affected a small percentage of users.
Renowned privacy researcher danah boyd recently discussed this method of "whitewashing" one's wall, wherein every comment and wall post was deleted by the user after it was no longer relevant. In boyd's example, the method was used by a teen who was trying to avoid drama with her friends. While this method may work to help avoid drama and keep some semblance of online privacy, it looks like once you send a piece of information to Facebook, it might be forever accessible in some way.
"Every single last thing has been removed from my wall except for the past 24 hours," our source told us. "Even for myself."
If you take a look at Twitter mentions of "memorable stories", you'll see a number of people complaining about the feature, saying that they don't necessarily want to be reminded of previous updates. It seems that even deleting updates does not protect you from being reminded of them.
"Some things I delete because they're private, some because they're boring," explained our source, "but some things I delete because I don't want to be reminded of them."
Now, it's not as if the feature itself is necessarily a huge privacy concern. We don't want to be the blog that cried wolf here. It only shows these "memories" to you, the person who posted the update in the first place. Deleted status updates appearing as memories, however, suggests that whatever you say on Facebook stays on Facebook.
We got in touch with Facebook and a spokesperson told us that it was a bug that affected a very small percentage of users:
This was in fact a bug that was to the 1% of people in the test for Memorable Stories. We turned it off when we discovered this and fixed it immediately. To be clear, we were only showing people their own status updates, meaning they were not visible to anyone's friends.
[O]ur focus is on immediately removing content from visibility and use on the site, and then initiating the deletion process. So, when a person deletes a post from Facebook, the post should immediately become unavailable for viewing in any context by any user (or use by Facebook). Thereafter, our deletion processes kick in and work their way through the complex databases, logs and backups, with actual deletion times varying by type of content.
The feature we were testing incorrectly accessed a small data depository--which only included a subset of data for a small number of people--that was set for destruction. We are investigating why that data had not yet been destroyed.
It's not as if this is the first time claims have been made that Facebook keeps deleted data available and online. There's an article that appears every couple months about how Facebook photos can stay on its servers for months and even years. It looks like the same may be true for status updates. Facebook does not, however, make the same mistake with its "data download" feature - that provided only the latest, non-deleted content.