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article imageOp-Ed: Facebook admits deleted photos aren't really removed

By Leigh Goessl     Feb 6, 2012 in Internet
A few years ago Ars Technica contacted Facebook about a problem where researchers found photos "deleted" from Facebook profiles were still available if an individual had the direct URL to the photo.
Cambridge University researchers first brought the issue to attention in May 2009 when a report was published. At the time Facebook indicated, "URLs to photographs may continue to exist on the Content Delivery Network (CDN) after users delete them from Facebook, until they are overwritten. Overwriting usually happens after a short period of time" (BBC News).
What does Facebook consider to be a short period of time?
Ars Technica raised the issue in July 2009 with an article titled, "Are "deleted" photos really gone from Facebook? Not always." Four networks were tested, Twitter, Facebook, MySpace and Flickr, and out of the four, Facebook and MySpace failed. Ars Technica followed up in 2010 and was told Facebook was working on it.
Fast-forward three years after the original problem was identified and Ars Technica followed up on the issue once again.
Photos never were truly deleted
According to a current update by Ars Technica, on Feb. 3 Facebook admitted the company's older systems that stores uploaded content, "did not always delete images from content delivery networks in a reasonable period of time even though they were immediately removed from the site."
Purportedly the social network giant is working on a newer system that will make the process quicker. The good news is that the photo does not appear on a profile where it was deleted, but the unfortunate news is if anyone has the URL to the location where the photo had originally been displayed on Facebook, it's still there.
This can cause potential problems for people, whether personally or professionally. Take for instance an individual who posted a photo of their friend's naked toddler crawling. Ars Technica reported the baby's parents requested that photo be removed back in 2008, and it was, or so they thought. Yet, in 2012, Ars Technica says they've personally confirmed that photo is still accessible via a direct URL. And there are others.
Facebook responds
Reportedly Facebook is working on a solution to this long-persisting problem.
"The systems we used for photo storage a few years ago did not always delete images from content delivery networks in a reasonable period of time even though they were immediately removed from the site," Facebook spokesperson Frederic Wolens told Ars Techica via email. Seemingly these images are residing on a legacy system.
"We have been working hard to move our photo storage to newer systems which do ensure photos are fully deleted within 45 days of the removal request being received," Wolens said. "This process is nearly complete and there is only a very small percentage of user photos still on the old system awaiting migration, the URL you provided was stored on this legacy system. We expect this process to be completed within the next month or two, at which point we will verify the migration is complete and we will disable all the old content."
Privacy issues -- and IPO
All Facebook points out there is a probability URLs are likely not memorized due to the complexity of the numbers and letters contained in the string of code. However URLs may have been saved and, if so, those photos are accessible. All Facebook notes the latter is "less likely".
While it might or might not be unlikely, the reality of the issue is that users are under the impression their images have been permanently removed through delete, however in this case, delete does not mean obliteration of photos off the web.
In that respect this can lead to other issues, and not just for users. Facebook's historical disregard of privacy in its initiatives has been repeatedly publicized over the years. While it led to some tangles with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission and other agencies, overall, being a private company, the implications were not necessarily positive, however did not affect the company's value and growth.
However as ZDNet's Zack Whittaker tackles the photo issue and notes, European privacy law is changing will have to comply with data retention rules. Whittaker said the social network giant may have already breached European data protection laws and said a European Commission spokesperson declined comment, but " noted it was “aware of the reports."
Now that Facebook has made the move and filed for an initial public offering, the dynamics are going to change. The company would be wise to be vigilant over privacy issues once it goes public. All it would take is one serious privacy firestorm, which could cause all kinds of potential problems for the company, as it'll now have investors to answer to for its actions, or, perhaps in some situations, inaction.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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