Outed by Facebook

Jan 28, 2014 • Technology

Facebook uncovers your lovers

Facebook’s algorithms are perhaps working a little too well. Just the other morning, it suggested that I poke three men with whom I had covert relationships over the course of the past five years — some not even connected to me on Facebook (unless you take into account that many of us allow Facebook access to our phone contacts). While considering all the things that could possibly go wrong with something like this, my eye caught the People You May Know section of the sidebar. I can just imagine Facebook urging that I add my husband’s mistress one day. But he knows her! the algorithm will insist. They talk all the time! Surely you know her, too!

No sooner had I tweeted about this that someone sent me a link. Of course this has happened before. And it was more than an awkward situation. A Washington state corrections officer by the name of Alan Fulk got married in 2001. Things didn’t really pan out, so he moved out in 2009. In December of 2011, Fulk changed his name to O’Neill and married someone else. Being married to more than one person at the same time is illegal in the United States, so this was an issue. But no one might have been the wiser if not for Facebook, which quickly proceeded to suggest that the first wife add the second as a friend.

The first wife, it should be noted, did not like the second wife. According to court documents, the two of them had had an “altercation” in 2010. When the first wife saw this woman suggested to her as a friend, she clicked on the profile and discovered a photo of her husband with the woman, toasting champagne before a wedding cake. Damn you friends-of-friends privileges unleashed by tagging.

As soon as she saw it, the first wife got in touch with her husband to ask if they had ever gotten divorced. He assured her that they were still married and begged her to not tell anyone that he’d married someone else. The first wife called the cops.

In court, O’Neill changed his tune, saying that he had tried to get a divorce, asking a neighbor to file his paperwork and that it was the neighbor who had failed. He said he was “embarrassed” that he didn’t follow through and “remorseful.”

None of it explains the change of name or how he begged his first wife to say nothing, but somehow the man managed to evade jail in favor of a year of probation. Naturally, the second marriage was annulled and he divorced his first wife with the appropriate follow-through.

His first wife, by the way, thought that the international attention the story received was more than enough punishment.

That’s all well and good for justice in this one case — but what about other cases? Different cases where it’s important to keep some things under wraps? How much we can trust social networks with dissidents when they’re obviously not even thinking about the secret lover use case?

Header image by MBN.