Those Facebook photos you deleted are still online - three years later

In this era of over-sharing about ourselves and the people we know on social networks, it’s understandable that, from time to time, we end up having to go back to airbrush our social histories a little bit. Sometimes you just need to tighten your privacy controls; sometimes a friend asks you to remove a post that might create more trouble than it’s worth; and sometimes you decide to remove a photo that you think might get you or someone else in hot water.

The vast majority of Facebook users have, at some point, removed a picture from one of their albums for this reason, and when it’s done, it’s not at all unreasonable to imagine that that’s the end of it – the picture is gone from your account and no-one can see it anymore; it’s deleted, dead, gone. But unfortunately, the reality of the situation is quite different.

Facebook photos that you ‘delete’ are indeed removed from your profile, and aren’t linked to from anywhere on the site. But, as Ars Technica revealed, those images aren’t being deleted from Facebook’s servers, and that means that anybody with the direct URL for those images can still access and view them.

Perhaps more damning than the existence of this issue is the fact that Facebook has been aware of it for three years now. In 2009, Facebook responded to comments and complaints by claiming that it was “working with our content delivery network (CDN) partner to significantly reduce the amount of time that backup copies persist”.

Over a year later, nothing had changed. In late 2010, Facebook spokesperson Simon Axten reiterated that the company was “currently working with the CDN on a fix that will delete photo and video content from the CDN’s cache shortly after it’s removed from Facebook. The fix is already in place for videos, and we hope to implement it for profile pictures and photos in the coming weeks.”

Fast forward another sixteen months to the present day, and despite the assurance of a solution “within weeks”, the issue still remains unresolved. Company spokesperson Frederic Wolens stated: “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.”

He also explained that a new system is in development that will ensure images are permanently expunged from Facebook servers within 45 days of being deleted by a user, adding: “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.”

Of course, given the company’s previous assurances that they were working on the issue, it’s difficult to take these promises seriously – but we’ll find out in the next few months if Facebook finally sorts out the years-old problem that it’s so far just brushed aside.

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