The New Gatekeepers

A special privacy feature available only to Facebook executives

April 6, 2018

One thing about Facebook is it’s very difficult to get rid of things once they are on the social network. Even if you delete your profile, for several days it exists in a state of limbo, not truly deleted but merely hidden from view, in case you change your mind. And still, your data will remain on Facebook’s servers for up to three months. In the past, Facebook has even kept status updates that users typed but never actually posted.

Until recently, however, if you happened to be a senior executive at the company, you had access to a special feature—one that allowed you to not only automatically delete your past instant messages, but also remove them from the inboxes of anyone who received them. And for many, that seems like a double standard when it comes to who gets to delete their personal behavior on the site and when.

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TechCrunch first reported on this phenomenon yesterday, with a story that describes how several people who got access to their message history through Facebook’s “Download Your Information” tool noticed their messages to CEO Mark Zuckerberg were in the archive, but his replies had disappeared—and not just recent ones, but all the way back to 2010. When asked about the deletion, a Facebook spokesperson told TechCrunch:

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After Sony Pictures’ emails were hacked in 2014 we made a number of changes to protect our executives’ communications. These included limiting the retention period for Mark’s messages in Messenger. We did so in full compliance with our legal obligations.

The company apparently never told the users who had these discussions that those messages would be removed from their inboxes. And while Facebook introduced a feature in 2016 that allows users of a special encrypted version of Messenger to have their instant messages auto-deleted after a certain time period, they can’t remove those messages from the inboxes of the people who received them, and the feature doesn’t remove messages dating back as far as 2010.

After questioning from TechCrunch and a number of other outlets, Facebook said it would stop allowing executives to delete messages from other people’s inboxes while it works on the rollout of a similar deletion feature for all users. A spokesman told BuzzFeed:

People using our secret message feature in the encrypted version of Messenger have the ability to set a timer and have their messages automatically deleted. We will now be making a broader delete message feature available. This may take some time. And until this feature is ready, we will no longer be deleting executives’ messages. We should have done this sooner — and we’re sorry that we did not.

While it might be a small feature that was designed to limit the potential liability of Facebook executives if their messages were hacked, it also seems like a case of Facebook allowing its senior staff to do something that normal users can’t. And let’s not forget that the company gave Zuckerberg and others the power to remove personal information, while at the same time distributing massive quantities of personal data to entities like Cambridge Analytica.

Mathew Ingram is CJR’s chief digital writer. Previously, he was a senior writer with Fortune magazine. He has written about the intersection between media and technology since the earliest days of the commercial internet. His writing has been published in the Washington Post and the Financial Times as well as by Reuters and Bloomberg.