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It could be the headline to an Onion article. It should be the headline to an Onion article. But in this case the story is real and the joke is on me.

I recently learned this horrifying fact. Although my privacy settings on Facebook were set to “friends only,” anyone with a Facebook account could access my wall. What the hell Facebook?

I’m of the Millennial Generation, the sort raised to share my photos, status updates, and tweets with abandon. I’ve been doing so since the MySpace days in junior high, when Facebook wasn’t even a thing. I’m trained, conditioned even, not to give much of a damn about my privacy.

Whenever scandals would erupt over Facebook’s privacy settings because hackers could access users’ contact information or apps were sharing user data, I would roll my eyes. I didn’t care if advertisers could target me based on my profile information or people could tag me in photos without my permission. I didn’t care that the new Timeline made it easy for my Facebook friends to dig up old stories from my past. These are all natural side effects of being online, the price I paid for social.

Plus I always had one reassurance to keep me safe: as long as my Facebook wall was set to be viewed by Facebook friends only, Facebook was a safe enough place for me. I could be silly or swear, whine about a bad day or gleefully post party pictures from the weekend before. I wasn’t dumb enough to say anything that could hurt me professionally, but my Facebook profile was definitely a personal representation, not meant for the public’s eye.

And now, I realize my posts have been public for anyone with an account to see. For god knows how long. Despite my settings still saying “friends only.” What the hell?

Yes I’m an idiot for not quadruple checking every privacy button I could every time I got wind of Facebook changing settings yet again. Yes I’m an idiot for assuming in this day and age there was even a vague modicum of “privacy” on the Internet. Yes it’s totally my fault.

But I’m not alone in my silliness. I realized my wall was public because I was sitting with a source, James Alva, who recently alleged an Uber driver physically and verbally harassed him. When Alva got home he turned to his Facebook wall to vent about the experience, assuming it was private to his friends. He wanted advice and recommendations on how he should proceed.

Thus when I pulled up Alva’s profile while interviewing him, he was shocked that I could see every post he’d made despite the fact that we weren’t Facebook friends. His surprise made me concerned, and I asked him to pull up my profile. That’s when I realized the rather terrible, uncomfortable, embarrassing truth that my Facebook ponderings had also been completely public for some time now.

We went straight to our privacy settings, navigating to our Timeline, where we were confused to see both our settings still said “friends” only could view our walls. That was exactly the settings I had checked from time to time to make sure my wall was still private. Where did I go wrong?

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A close reading revealed my mistake. In the past, I had not carefully examined the description. The light gray subtitle next to “Who can see things on my timeline” held the key. I was only limiting “Who can see what others post on your timeline.” Shit.

The full timeline privacy settings were, weirdly enough, not listed under Timeline. They were listed under Privacy, which I had never navigated to. Alva had made the same mistake with his settings.

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Although most netizens are no doubt wiser than me and James Alva, there are likely plenty of other  Facebook users just as silly as us. Naively trusting that, through all of Facebook’s privacy setting twists and turns, one thing would never change. The wall posts would never default to public. Our bad.

In an effort to understand when this happened and how I missed it, I read 60-70 news reports and stories about Facebook’s privacy setting changes over the last few years. Was it when Facebook switched to Timeline view? Perhaps it happened when all profiles became Facebook Graph searchable? Or was it when they introduced the new “simplified” privacy settings to put your privacy front and center (a button, by the way, that I had never noticed before doing this research).

It’s a testament to Facebook’s ridiculous, ever changing, policies that I couldn’t find a clear answer. Searching through Alva and my profiles made the mystery that much more confusing. It seemed that Alva’s posts became public December 14th, 2012, whereas mine became public July 14th, 2013. Both Alva and I remembered setting our wall posts to private at some point years prior.

Screen Shot 2013-11-29 at 1.06.22 PMAfter hours reading through user forums and online guides to protecting your Facebook, the only possible answer I could find as to why our posts became public when they did pointed to an insidious little button right next to where posts are made. It’s a drop down menu where you can choose public, private, or friends only. It was introduced in August 2011, and I vaguely remember watching a short tutorial on it back then. What I didn’t know was that if you make one post public, the rest will be public from that point forward.

So perhaps Alva and I both unwittingly and accidentally made a post public, on December 14th 2012, and July 14th, 2013 respectively. From then on all our posts were public without our knowledge.

It’s a modern day Brother Grimms fairy tale. An allegory for what can go wrong when you put a little too much faith in the corporations holding your personal information. It’s the sort of lesson most people on the Internet have probably learned by now. Perhaps the only ones left to learn it are those like me. People who thought they didn’t give much of a shit about their privacy, and therefore ignored the latest Facebook scandal news.

Oops.

For anyone else like me, there’s a thousand and one great guides on protecting your information. Even if you think you know what the hell you’re doing, I suggest reading one to make sure.

As for me? I’ve deactivated my Facebook account till I’ve got a few hours to spend reading all these manuals.

[Image courtesy dullhunk]