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Summary:

Some younger Facebook users are changing their names — using their middle name instead of their last, and so on — to try and keep their profiles hidden from prospective employers. But that could play havoc with Facebook’s claims about the verified identity of its users.

Updated: One of the things Facebook has going for it when compared with many other social networks and web services is that you know the person you’re connecting to is using their real name — or at least you have good reason to believe that’s the case, since Facebook spends a lot of time and effort trying to remove people that use assumed names or aliases, or pretend to be someone they’re not. But as CNN notes, many younger Facebook users are choosing to change their names in an effort to maintain more privacy.

The CNN piece talks about a young man at Michigan State University who swapped the letters of his first and last names on his Facebook profile because he was applying for summer jobs and was afraid of what prospective employers might find (although he later changed it back again after realizing that he could still be found via email, and through his local and university networks). And it points out that such fears are not misplaced: according to a study financed by Microsoft for Data Privacy Day, about 70 percent of HR executives admitted that they had rejected an applicant for a job because of something they found by doing an Internet search.

I can confirm (at least anecdotally) that this is occurring, because I suddenly discovered a few days ago that my oldest daughter — who is also in university — had changed her name on Facebook, and was using the last name of another member of the family instead. Needless to say, this came as a bit of a shock :-) Had she suddenly become disenchanted with our last name? Was she retaliating because I got mad about her latest cellphone bill? Or did she just like my in-laws’ family better? As it turned out, she had just finished sending out some job applications, and was hoping to keep employers from finding all her personal info. Like the student in the CNN story, there’s nothing too incriminating (not that I could find, anyway) on her profile page, just some photos of parties and public drunkenness, here and there — typical university stuff. But she figured better safe than sorry.

A quick survey of people on Twitter turned up similar results: some said that their friends had swapped or juggled names as well, in order to try and keep the prying eyes of employers and others away, and that many routinely used their middle name instead of their last name. One said that “most of my friends list has different names than their actual,” and another said that they had noticed “a lot of my contacts going by their middle name or a nickname. I can only assume it’s for the same reason.” A third said that “everyone I know born past 1980 changes their name; switching first to last, using Ukrainian cyrillic alphabet instead, etc.” Interestingly enough, some of the people who responded said that their teachers changed their names in an effort to make it harder for their students to find them.

I can understand why someone would want to do it, particularly if they’re concerned about some of the changes Facebook has made — or is going to be making — to its privacy guidelines (although you still show up in Facebook search even if you alter your name). But I can’t see Facebook being too happy about users changing their names to nicknames or nonsense names, or swapping letters and so on. After all, so much of what Facebook does, particularly the widely used authentication service Facebook Connect, relies on assurances that people are who they say they are. I’ve asked the company for comment on this phenomenon, and will update if I get a response.

Update: A Facebook spokesperson sent this comment via email: “Facebook is based on real people making real-world connections and people on Facebook will get the most value out of the site by using their real identity. We will consider removing a profile if we determine that it is not authentic and false information is being communicated on it.”

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Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Kat.B.Photography

  1. One rule: Do not get connected on Facebook with people you don’t know or even with people you hardly know. So much personal data can be abused.

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    1. Paul Trueman Monday, April 5, 2010

      In that case there’d be no point in going on Facebook at all. What purpose would it serve?

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  2. The authoritarian Facebook practice of requiring real names is one of the worst things about the service, particularly now that every three months more and more of your online behavior is tracked and made accessible by Facebook (to commercial entities if not to your friends or the public). Many people want or need to be able to connect with friends without accumulating a dossier connected to their real world identity.

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  3. [...] UPDATED: Are Your Facebook Friends Really Who They Say They Are? [...]

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  4. [...] UPDATED: Are Your Facebook Friends Really Who They Say They Are? [...]

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  5. So why don’t these guys use Facebook’s privacy settings to control what’s visible to non-friends?

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    1. That’s a good point, Heath — Facebook has pretty granular controls on privacy that let you filter a lot of stuff out, although some younger users may not have looked into them closely enough.

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    2. Facebook turned another significant corner for the worse in December when it increased the number of fields considered “publicly available information” and decreased user choice in some very significant ways. Plus, the way the changes are rolled out essentially forces people into more openness (even if they don’t want that) by making it difficult to understand the full ramifications of the controls and how to accomplish what they want in terms of their privacy.

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  6. Perhaps those inclined to bar fights, bong hits, binge drinking and bad behavior would find it beneficial to refrain from posting pictures and video to Facebook, Youtube and other parts of the internet. It is one thing to be criminal or in bad taste, it is another thing to publish such things to a world powered by search engines.

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    1. It isn’t just illegal or unethical activity. There are many legal things(being gay for example)that may cause a potential employer to not hire you.

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    2. There are so many valid reasons for people to want and deserve their right to privacy. It’s naive to think that no one minds living in a glass house just because they’re a fine upstanding citizen. See:
      http://www.danah.org/papers/talks/2010/SXSW2010.html
      http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=998565
      http://www.wired.com/politics/security/commentary/securitymatters/2006/05/70886

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  7. Don’t share anything that you would not want your mother to see or perspective employers for that matter, and you should be safe.

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  8. Will Facebook come to your house and check your ID if you provide a pseudonym? I don’t think so.
    Using a persona is one of the key point if you want to keep your privacy online.

    The problem we are facing now is that data we upload on SNS is only sporadically protected by privacy laws. Me? I don’t like people touching my stuff, so I don’t post anything too private. But we will soon need either some real status for our online identity or some massive education for the users.

    By the way I’ve written a piece on the topic last year:
    http://dannyfr.posterous.com/the-global-bigotry

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  9. I agree with Biljana..Facebook will always be used to connect with PEOPLE YOU KNOW. Facebook isn’t about gaining as many friends as possible, it’s about connecting with friends whom you go to school with, have hung out with, have had actual conversations with IN PERSON. If you are the type of Facebook user that just adds these so called “friends” because you want your friend number raised…then you may as well deactivate your account, we don’t need people like you on facebook any way. I think that would clear up the abusing of profiles problem.

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  10. Robert Prince Saturday, June 19, 2010

    Matthew, you may find interesting a post that I wrote about whether the “celebrities” on facebook are who they say they are.
    http://www.robertontheroad.com/2010/05/27/celebrities-on-facebook-my-good-friends-mick-keith-chazz-christian-hef-and-heather/

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