New Facebook Message Security: No, You May Not Delete

Last Updated May 23, 2011 5:56 PM EDT

Facebook has been working harder lately to lock down down security on the site, for instance by texting access codes that you must enter to use your account from a new computer. (It keeps someone from pretending to be you from another machine.) And now there's an even newer feature: You can't really delete your own messages.

On the surface, of course, it still looks like you can. Facebook has been rolling out a new feature that lets you move messages to an archive or keep them on the main message page -- much the way Gmail does, in fact. To send something to the archive, you click the X next to the message in the inbox. Or you can click an arrow in the archive to move the message back. Want to delete? Open the message and choose that option from the drop-down Actions button.

But deleting something doesn't necessarily mean that it actually disappears.

Where do those deleted messages go?
The new message system has apparently has been rolling out for at least the last day or so, according to people I've spoken with. In experimenting with it, I found that a bunch of messages I'd deleted -- some from as long ago as early March-- had reappeared. In other words, Facebook apparently keeps copies to retrieve when it needs to -- or when it wants access to the information.

I've emailed Facebook for comment, but haven't heard back yet.

In any case, this setup poses some significant problems for users, particularly if deleted messages suddenly reappear of their own volition:

  • You want to eliminate potentially embarrassing messages or ones with sensitive information for the sake of privacy.
  • There could be reminders of people with whom you've had a falling out, whether you want them to or not.
  • If you use Facebook for work, then there's a permanent archive of all conversations that might be legally available under a court order. There are reasons that corporations have legal strategies for archiving and for deleting data. Talk about a lawsuit discovery bonanza.
Even though there wasn't anything particularly fascinating about my suddenly undeleted messages, there is something creepy in knowing that Facebook is like an electronic scavenger, picking through virtual trash to save every bit of the past... just in case.

The issues above might seem like potential problems for individuals, or even the companies that employ them, should someone file suit and demand information. But there is at least as big a problem for Facebook. Guess who will receive requests and court orders? The company had better use some of its profits to invest in a clerical operation, because there are likely to be a lot of knocks on the door.

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Image: morgueFile user jeltovski, site standard license.
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    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.