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Mark Zuckerberg shows off the Facebook Timeline in September 2011. Users have again raised fears that the Timeline allows 'private' messages to be seen by any other user. Paul Sakuma/AP

Facebook says: No, the Timeline is not revealing your private messages

Users had reported that their timelines included messages sent privately several years ago – but Facebook says they’re mistaken.

FACEBOOK HAS DISMISSED concerns raised by users in recent days that the ‘Timeline’ layout for personal profiles allows users to read private messages sent to that person several years ago.

The social network has seen many complaints in recent days from users who believe scrolling back through their timelines allows them to see conversations which had previously been exchanged only in private.

The suggestion from users is that the Timeline layout for personal profiles – which includes links allowing people to jump backwards through a user’s history on the site – makes it very easy to access things posted to someone’s profile Wall in previous years.

In doing so, however, some users have reported that among the messages appearing there are messages which were sent through the site’s ‘Messages’ facility – i.e. messages which were never meant to be published for others to see, and were intended only for that user themselves.

Facebook says it’s looked into the complaints – and can’t find any basis for them.

“A small number of users raised concerns after what they believed to be private messages appeared on their Timeline,” a spokesman told us this afternoon.

“Our engineers investigated these reports and found that the messages were older wall posts that had always been visible on the users’ profile pages. Facebook is satisfied that there has been no breach of user privacy.”

A repeated concern

It’s not the first time that the concern has been raised either – similar complaints were made when Timeline was first introduced for some users in September 2011, and again earlier this year when it became mandatory for all users.

Put simply, the concerns seem to relate to the fact that the way in which people use Facebook to interact with each other. It wasn’t until a few years ago, for example, that the site allowed users to comment on each others’ statuses or wall posts.

This meant that instead of being able to conduct a conversation which was all neatly housed under one status update, it was conducted (Bebo-style, if you will) in bits and pieces through posts on each user’s walls. User A writes on User B’s wall; User B responds in kind.

Another way of conducting full discussions in Facebook – the built-in chat feature – wasn’t introduced until April 2008, so wall-to-wall discussions were effectively the only way of speaking to people on the site for a sustained period of time.

While it is possible that some users may have left posts on another’s wall believing them to be private, it’s not likely to be as prevalent any more – particularly given that the chat feature, which has been merged with the messages one, is so physically distinct from a user’s own profile.

Facebook has also asserted that the systems which handle the site’s personal messaging and public commenting functions are totally independent, and that no mechanism has ever been created that could mix the two.

Users who remain concerned about the possibility of the Timeline revealing private messages can customise their privacy settings under the ‘Timeline & Tagging’ category to govern who can read previous posts on their pages.

Read: 1 in 5 people now has a Twitter account (and 10 per cent still have a Bebo page)

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