How Private Are Your Private Facebook Messages?

When you send a link to someone in a private message on Facebook, just how private is it?

A recent online video shows that the social networking site scans the links you’re sending – registering them as though you “Like” the page you sent. It’s just one example of how online messages that seem private are often actually examined by computers for data.

Email providers such as Gmail have long reviewed messages in order to spot spam and place ads. Facebook has said previously that its computers analyze messages to filter spam and to detect conversations that could be related to criminal behavior. The company’s guidance for developers also says that “the number of inbox messages containing” a link to a page will count as “Likes” – indicating that the recording of these links isn’t some sort of new bug.

But it’s not clear from Facebook’s data use policy that regular users would expect links in their messages to be scanned this way. The policy simply says generally that Facebook gets “data about you whenever you interact with Facebook,” including when you “send or receive a message.”

Facebook did not immediately provide a comment on the matter. (See update below.)

The video, which was posted this week on Hacker News, showed a person who sent links in Facebook messages in order to inflate the number of “Likes” a page had received. Each time the link was sent, the page’s “Like” count went up by two, something that the Hacker News poster said allows people to “pump up to 1,800 ‘Likes’ in an hour.”

In addition to raising privacy questions, then, the video points to potential problems with “Like fraud.”

“If [you’re] visiting an online store and you see a lot of likes under the product then this might cloud your judgement,” one commenter wrote.

The video has since been taken down for violating YouTube’s restrictions on the depiction of “harmful activities,” but the behavior was also confirmed and recorded by Digits. There’s also a page that you can use to test this yourself. As of this afternoon, sending this link in a Facebook message boosted the “Like” count by two each time. The links also increased the count seen on the “insights” dashboard for the page, which shows the owners information on “Likes” and “shares” their page is receiving.

So readers, what do you think? Are you used to your messages being scanned by computers by now, or does that sort of thing surprise you?

Update: Facebook responded on Thursday, saying that “absolutely no private information has been exposed” and that users’ privacy settings were not affected.

“We did recently find a bug with our social plugins where at times the count for the Share or Like goes up by two, and we are working on fix to solve the issue now,” the company said in a statement. It said the bug is related only to non-Facebook sites and not to “Likes” on Facebook Pages.

Otherwise, the company said, the system is working as expected. “Many websites that use Facebook’s ‘Like’, ‘Recommend’, or ‘Share’ buttons also carry a counter next to them. This counter reflects the number of times people have clicked those buttons and also the number of times people have shared that page’s link on Facebook,” including over private messages.


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