It turns out that, at one point, Facebook considered selling its users’ data.
Now we know this not because Facebook executives felt a sudden need for transparency, but because of a flawed PDF that was not correctly worded.
That error, which was reported by ArsTechnica, resulted in a series of email exchanges among Facebook employees that were made unintentionally public. The court documents, which stem from a 2015 lawsuit against Facebook by a developer called Six4Tree, are currently at the center of an investigation conducted by UK government officials on Facebook’s data privacy practices.
Newly discovered and unwritten parts actually reveal that the social network played with the idea of giving large corporations deeper access to Facebook data if they spent large sums of money on advertising.
Ultimately, Facebook did not formally pursue these types of agreements. In a statement provided to Mashable, the company’s director of platforms and developer programs, Konstantinos Papamiltiadis, called the emails “deceptive” and noted that Facebook has never accused developers of accessing its platform.
However, the fact that these emails were made public in the first place is another embarrassing example of what can go wrong when the PDF editing software is not used correctly.
Reporter Cyrus Farivar of ArsTechnica dug up the supposedly redacted text when he literally copied it and pasted it into a text editor. “Ars was able to access pages of crossed-out text simply by copying and pasting them into a text editor,” he wrote. (The full document is available here.)
And while we do not know what exactly went wrong that made it so embarrassingly easy to decipher the text, it certainly seems that one of the law firms involved could use an update on how to use their PDF editing software. (The document in question originated in Six4Tres, but the law firm of Six4Three, Birnbaum & Godkin, could not be contacted immediately for comment).
However, it turns out that writing a text correctly can be more complex than you think. “In theory, this happens because there is a very wrong way to do the writing,” says Cathy Gellis, a cybernetic attorney based in Northern California, who is not affiliated with the Six4Tree case.
I really want to know how the redaction failed. Because either it’s a cautionary tale for all lawyers so we don’t do it wrong, or something technical didn’t work as it was supposed to.
Every lawyer needs to know. https://t.co/ZydVnlPM0e
— Cathy Gellis (@CathyGellis) November 29, 2018
That could be the reason why the District Court for Northern California, where the lawsuit was originally filed, has its own guide to what should and should not be done to help lawyers hide confidential information.
The “no” section lists several methods that should not be used, such as simply changing the color of the font to white and deleting the text without deleting the associated metadata. It also notes that some editing tools may appear as “blackened” in the text even though it is still visible.
It is not clear if that is what happened in this case. Although it would not be the first time that a simple mistake becomes a shameful disaster. Earlier this month, a prosecutor accidentally revealed that the United States government had filed charges against Wikileaks founder Julian Assange when a United States attorney copied and pasted the wrong text into a court document. It was also revealed this year that the former President of the Donald Trump presidential campaign, Paul Manafort, accidentally created a paper trail documenting the fraud because he did not know how to convert a Microsoft Word document into a PDF.
However, for lawyers, the Six4Tree case is a reminder of what can go wrong when the tools you use do not work the way you intended. Gellis points out that it is important that lawyers understand how these errors occur in order to avoid them better in the future. “Part of our job is to keep a lot of information secret in many ways, all the lawyers have to write documents, and you want to believe that you have written them correctly.”
For what it’s worth, the District Court for Northern California recommends a drafting method that promises “will always be 100% effective”, and all you need is a good pair of scissors: “cut (literally) all the text. and properly dispose (crush) the cuttings. “