Monday, February 6, 2012

Over 3 Years Later, ‘Deleted’ Facebook Photos Are Still Online

Over 3 Years Later, ‘Deleted’ Facebook Photos Are Still Online:

Facebook is still working on deleting photos from its servers in a timely manner nearly three years after Ars first brought attention to the topic. The company admitted on Friday that its older systems for storing 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,” but said it’s currently finishing up a newer system that makes the process much quicker. In the meantime, photos that users thought they “deleted” from the social network months or even years ago remain accessible via direct link.

The Problem: ‘Deleted’ Photos Never Go Away

When we first investigated this phenomenon in 2009, we discovered that photos “deleted” from Facebook seemingly never go away if you have a direct link to the image file on Facebook’s servers. Users who might have had second thoughts about posting a photo — whether it was because they didn’t want retaliation from an employer, wanted to avoid family drama, or uploaded a photo of a friend without their permission — could certainly remove the image from Facebook’s main user interface. But as long as someone had a direct link to the .jpg file in question, the photo would remain accessible for an indefinite amount of time.

When we asked Facebook about it, we were told that the company was “working with our content delivery network (CDN) partner to significantly reduce the amount of time that backup copies persist.”

But when we followed up on the story more than a year later, our “deleted” photos were still accessible via direct link. That’s when the reader stories started pouring in: we were told horror stories about online harassment using photos that were allegedly deleted years ago, and users who were asked to take down photos of friends that they had put online.

There were plenty of stories in between as well, and panicked Facebook users continue to e-mail me, asking if we have heard of any new way to ensure that their deleted photos are, well, deleted. For example, one reader linked me to a photo that a friend of his had posted of his toddler crawling naked on the lawn. He asked his friend to take it down for obvious reasons, and so the friend did — in May of 2008. As of this writing in 2012, I have personally confirmed that the photo is still online, as are several others that readers linked me to that were deleted at various points in 2009 and 2010.

(Amusingly, after publishing the 2010 followup, Facebook appeared to delete my photos from its CDN that I had linked in the piece. The company never offered me any explanation, but my photos were the only ones that were deleted at that time. Other “deleted” photos that I had saved links to — ones that weren’t from my account and were deleted even earlier than mine — remained online.)

It’s 2012, And Things Aren’t Much Different — Yet

After confirming once again that all the photos that my friends and Ars readers had sent in were still online, I reached out to Facebook once again, looking for an answer as to why this is still going on nearly three years after the company first promised it was “working” on the issue.

“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 via e-mail.

Wolens explained that photos remaining online are stuck in a legacy system that was apparently never operating properly, but said the company is working on a new system that will delete the photos in a mere month and a half. For really real this time.

“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.”

Long story short, Wolens claims that Facebook is on the verge of fixing up its content systems so that “deleted” photos are really, truly deleted from the CDN within 45 days. But with the process not expected to be finished until a couple months from now — and unfortunately, with a company history of stretching the truth when asked about this topic — we’ll have to see it before we believe it.

It’s hard to believe that we’ve been following this story over a period of years and the problem hasn’t been fixed yet. But unlike the past, we do have some semblance of confidence that Facebook might actually be working on it this time. We’ll continue to follow this story until the new changes are actually in place. In the meantime, does anyone have any new Facebook horror stories to share?

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