Flickr privacy bug changes some private photos to public, then public to private

A Flickr software bug changed some private photos to public, then the 'fix' changed public photos to private, resulting in broken images and error messages scattered across the web.

Across the web, you may frequently come across broken Flickr images replaced with "This image or video is currently unavailable." Flickr discovered a software bug that affected privacy settings, making some users' private photos public for as long as 20 days. Then, as a precaution, Flickr set public photos to private. The result is "bad" links all over the place that cause the "currently unavailable" error message.

Flickr privacy bug results in broken image error 'This image or video is currently unavailable'

Flickr has been around since 2004. In 2005, "Yahoo bought it and nearly destroyed it." When Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer took over, she was asked to make Flickr awesome again. Then Flickr finally created an "app that doesn't suck." On Safer Internet Day, Flickr came out with safer photo sharing tips. Topping the list was privacy settings:

Flickr allows you to make your photos as private as you want them to be and change the default photo privacy settings accordingly - you can change these for your whole account or for each individual photo on Flickr, and choose from the options of Public, visible to Friends, visible to Family, visible to Friends & Family, or Private.

How embarrassing that at the same time the company releases these safety tips, a privacy settings bug at Flickr caused some private photos to swap settings and therefore become public for a period of 20 days. Although Flickr did not announce this privacy issue on its blog, the company quietly took steps to correct the problem. The result was that anyone affected had all their photos set to private.

According to the email from Brett Wayn, Flickr Vice President:

While performing routine site maintenance, we identified a software bug that may have changed the view setting on some of your photos from non-public (i.e., private or viewable only by family and friends) to public. Affected photos were visible on Flickr between January 18th and February 7th, 2013. The affected photos were barred from appearing in any search results and they were limited to photos you've uploaded between April and December of 2012.

Protecting your privacy is one of our highest priorities so, when we discovered the bug, we took the added precaution of setting any potentially impacted photos in your account to "private." When a photo is set to "private," links and embeds on other websites will no longer work. This means you may have photos you intended to share with others that you may need to adjust the settings on.

Flickr privacy bug changes some private photos to public, then public to private

Numerous Flickr forum posts complaining about the issue also explained that these photographers have hundreds of photos and checking the settings for each will take hours. Additionally, as one Flickr forum user explained, "Every switch from public to private and then private to public (and so on and so on) will generate a new URL. It's not toggling between two URLs, a public one and a private one." That means lots of photos may stay broken and show a "currently unavailable" error message for some time. However, the same user then said, "I just got a message from Flickr team that will be helping me restore the URLs."

Barry Schwartz of Marketing Land sent an email to Flickr in order to find out if anyone viewed his private photos. He was told that if your private photos were made public, then the "only way someone could view these photos would have been if they had 'direct links to a photo’s page.'" Additionally, the private to public photos were not “in Flickr search during that time, nor were they indexed by search engines."

If you are wondering if your Flickr account was affected, then you can sign in and check here. If you are lucky, then you will see: "Your account was not affected by the bug that may have changed the view setting on some of photos from non-public (i.e., private or viewable only by family and friends) to public."

If you have a blog or website and you don't upload Flickr photos, but instead choose to link or embed them, you should check to see if the images there have been replaced with an error message.

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Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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