Facebook Outage Reveals Image Info Gathered, While Underscoring Big Tech's Susceptibility

Editor’s note: This story was updated on July 4.

On July 3, the eve of one of the biggest social sharing days of the year,

Facebook Inc. experienced partial outages across its network of platforms for much of the day.

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Some users reported issues uploading images,

videos and other content to the company’s flagship Facebook app, Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger, and some were unable to view stories on Instagram or send messages via WhatsApp.

According

to a Verge report based on DownDetector, the issues began at about 8 a.m. ET and began clearing up after a few hours. But they weren’t completely resolved until about 8 p.m. ET, when Facebook

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posted a message to its official Twitter account stating “we should [now] be back at 100 percent for everyone. We’re sorry for any inconvenience.”

Facebook ultimately blamed the outage

on an error that occurred during “routine maintenance.”

With its reputation on the line, Facebook wasted no time acknowledging the issue after

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it first began. “We’re aware that some people are having trouble uploading or sending images, videos and other files on our apps,” the company tweeted Wednesday morning.

“We’re sorry for the trouble and are working to get things back to normal as quickly as possible.” Facebook also posted a couple of updates during the day.

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The technical

snafus also resulted in many images on Facebook and Instagram being temporarily replaced with the text tags they’ve been assigned by Facebook’s machine-learning (including facial recognition) programs

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(e.g., “Image may contain: people smiling, people dancing wedding and indoor”), according to The Verge. The practice has been in place since at least 2016, but many users apparently

were taken aback by the amount of personal information being gleaned by Facebook from their photos — a development not likely to help Facebook’s case with legislators and regulators currently probing

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social media, with talk of antitrust action in play.

The tag information is used to describe photos and videos to users with sight impairments, but “what’s not clear is whether Facebook

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also uses this information to target ads,” says The Verge.

“There’s a lot of data about users’ lives that they might otherwise shield from Facebook contained in these images: whether you’ve got a pet, what your hobbies are, where you like

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going on holiday, or if you’re really into vintage cars, or swords, or whatever.” Facebook had yet to respond to an inquiry on this point.

No big tech company is immune to widespread outages. In fact, Twitter also experienced technical difficulties on Wednesday. Facebook’s properties

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blacked out briefly in March, and Google’s Gmail service has experienced several outages this year.

Outages usually interrupt the

business of advertising to some extent, but some brands have learned to turn the incidents into opportunities. For example, during the March incident, Denny’s tweeted: “Instagram and Facebook are

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down, but Denny’s is always open.”

It’s difficult to calculate the damage Facebook incurs when its services are interrupted, but

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it must equate to millions in ad dollars and brand value. Some users do turn to rival social services, at least temporarily, when Facebook and Instagram are down.

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