Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has had special privileges to delete private messages even after he sent them, the company admitted late Thursday in a response to a Techcrunch report.
Variety has since learned that a Messenger retention feature, which automatically deleted sent messages after 90 days, had been available to multiple Facebook executives. The company promised to pause this type of auto-deletion of messages sent by its executives Friday, and is now looking to make a similar feature available to its users in the coming months.
“People using our secret message feature in the encrypted version of Messenger have the ability to set a timer — and have their messages automatically deleted,” a company spokesperson told Variety Friday. “We will now be making a broader delete message feature available. This may take some time. And until this feature is ready, we will no longer be deleting any executives’ messages. We should have done this sooner — and we’re sorry that we did not.”
Techcrunch reported late Thursday that it had spoken to multiple Facebook users who had exchanged messages with Zuckerberg on Facebook Messenger over the years. At least in one case, one of those users had a copy of those messages in an email. But in their Messenger history, Zuckerberg’s messages had mysteriously disappeared, making it look like people were talking to themselves.
Confronted with this evidence, Facebook admitted that it had retracted some of Zuckerberg’s Messenger messages for corporate security reasons. “After Sony Pictures’ emails were hacked in 2014 we made a number of changes to protect our executives’ communications,” the company told Techcrunch. “These included limiting the retention period for Mark’s messages in Messenger. We did so in full compliance with our legal obligations to preserve messages.”
Facebook likely referenced the Sony hack because it resulted in the public disclosure of insider information about one of its key competitors, Snapchat maker Snap Inc. The emails that leaked after the Sony hack included some from former Sony Pictures Entertainment CEO and chairman Michael Lynton, who was also a board member of Snap at the time, and who had exchanged emails with a Snap executive about the company’s acquisitions and product road map. After the hack, Lynton resorted to faxing his memos for some time; he went on to leave Sony and become Snap’s chairman.
This latest scramble wraps up a hectic week for Facebook, during which its senior executives went on a media tour to limit the outfall in response to the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg used a series of TV interviews as well as a call with reporters to apologize for the company’s past failures. Most of these appearances were light on news, but Zuckerberg did on Wednesday commit to making product changes the company has to implement in response to new European privacy regulations available worldwide. And on Thursday, Sandberg revealed that some advertisers had paused their campaigns in light of recent revelations.
Update: 10:28am PT: This post was updated with additional details and a response from Facebook.