Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook F8

Facebook bug resets 14 million users’ privacy preference to ‘public’

Image credit: Reuters/Stephen Lam

A software bug has caused the default privacy settings of millions of Facebook users to be changed to ‘public’, the social media company has said in a blog post.

This means that up to 14 million Facebook users may have accidentally shared their private information and photos publicly, although the actual number of users affected has not been confirmed. The bug was live during the period 18 to 22 May 2018, although a further five days were taken to switch posts back to users’ preferences.

Yesterday, Facebook began getting in touch with the 14 million users to explain what had happened and request that they review posts made during that time. Affected users will receive a notification; until they change their settings, posts from the affected period have been changed to match previous privacy settings.

The issue has been described by Facebook as the “Audience Selector Error”, referring to the audience selection tools which allow users to choose whether their posts and photos are seen by friends, everyone, or by another select group of people.

Facebook privacy notification


Image credit: Facebook

“This bug occurred as we were building a new way to share featured items on your profile, like a photo. Since these featured items are public, the suggested audience for all new posts, not just these items, was set to public,” wrote Erin Egan, Facebook’s chief privacy officer, in a blog post. “We have fixed this issue and starting today we are letting everyone affected know and asking them to review any posts they made during this time.”

Egan said that Facebook was letting users know about the issue amid greater calls for transparency and “out of an abundance of caution”.

The incident, though embarrassing, will likely be regarded as a minor error for the world’s largest social media company in comparison with the series of scandals it has attracted in recent months. Facebook has come under a barrage of criticism since The Observer revealed that a data analytics company, Cambridge Analytica, had underhandedly acquired the personal data of up to 87 million Facebook users, which it used to target pro-Trump adverts in the run-up to the 2016 US presidential election. Following the scandal, Facebook co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg was questioned by Congress and the European Parliament.

Earlier this week, Facebook confirmed that it had data-sharing agreements with approximately 60 device manufacturers, including Huawei (which has been banned by the US military amid cyber-espionage concerns). During this week's Apple developer conference, the company announced a set of tools for its new operating systems which would help users avoid Facebook tracking them across the web.

Facebook has come under some criticism for continuing to emphasise the small degree of control users have over their data via audience selector options, while other forms of user data – such as name, age, location, sex, relationship status and ‘likes’ - have been found to have been collected by, and shared with, third parties without users’ knowledge. 

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