Are Your Facebook Friends Really Who They Say They Are?

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 (s msft) 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