The Privacy (You Don’t Realize) You’re Giving Up on Facebook (Part 2)
by Marie Notcheva
Messenger – a Faster Way to Wrongly Conclude that People are Lying to You
As absurd as it sounds, this timestamp has led to fights, paranoia, even breakups – and it’s not even accurate. By 2013, a glitch in how the servers were gathering data was well known to Facebook. Randomly, users (especially from cellphones) will appear as online, even when they’re not – “phantom users”, in a sense. While the exact reason this occurs is unknown, some guesses from a mechanical engineer are:
- Facebook Chat in the browser has no uniform way of determining the idle state of the host machine or browser.
- The Facebook Messenger app can’t signal that it’s idle either, because most mobile OSes kill apps or place them on standby at will to conserve power.
- Mobile data connections are relatively tenuous compared to conventional LAN connections. This means that a mobile client may fade in and out of connectedness despite the user being active.
- Facebook Chat’s infrastructure doesn’t distinguish between API calls from Facebook clients and 3rd party apps using a Facebook account. This means that you could appear to be online solely because a web service that uses your Facebook credentials pinged Facebook’s servers. Combined with point #1, it means Facebook might assume a user is online solely because their browser is on a Facebook page, despite them not being at the computer.
- The sheer number of users is too much for Facebook to track accurately in real-time.
Another reason for “phantom activity” may be that many users have other accounts linked to Facebook (such as Twitter, Instagram, etc.) Theoretically, whenever there is activity there it could cause someone to appear “Active”, even if he has not opened Facebook in days. Apps running in the background affect the activity recorded, as well.
I have many student-friends in Europe (six time zones ahead of me), and it’s not unusual for them to login to Facebook and chat in the middle of the night. However, some of their phones seem plagued by this “timestamp glitch” – resulting in exchanges such as this (paraphrase):
ME: “Dude! What are you doing online? It’s 2:00 in the morning over there. You should go to sleep.”
HIM: “Dude, ya think?!? I WAS sleeping.”
ME: “But Dude, your Facebook says you’re active. I thought you were chatting.”
HIM: “Dude, I wasn’t chatting. I was sleeping. My phone does that, I don’t know why.”
ME: “Oh, sorry Dude!! My bad. Good night.”
Not a big deal, right? It led to some slight embarrassment on my part; some sleep-deprivation on his part; and a new rule: don’t message European friends after dinner (regardless of what Facebook claims about their activity).
Elsewhere, however, this Messenger feature – no matter how unreliable – has caused almost unbelievable drama. A sample of complaints:
“Fell asleep at 11pm. Girlfriend thinks I am up to no good as it says that I have been active between 11.30 – 12. Caused mayhem.”
“My boyfriend and I broke up because of this.
Sometimes it’s good because you think “oh thank God, he was online 14 min. ago, so he wasn’t hit by a truck!”, but other times it’s “hey WTH is he doing on FB mobile at midnight when he told me he went to bed at 10pm?”
My question is two-fold: 1) Why are people stalking each other in this way; and 2) Why doesn’t Facebook remove this timestamp feature – or at least make it optional? It’s the fact that we have no control over this privacy feature that is the issue.
Social media may be a faster, more accessible way to communicate, but the psychological effects it is having on relationships makes this a steep price to pay. A decade ago, it would have seemed unthinkable that trust would be shattered over privacy violations on a “socializing” platform. This is not porn, “cyber-sexing” or any other form of infidelity – this is a massive social network wrongly recording pings off a server (that it has no right to be recording).
It may be too late to uninstall Messenger (you will still be able to send messages through the browser, but not the App), but be aware of what it records about you. Assume the timestamp is inaccurate; turn off your location services; and ask Facebook to remove both of these features.