Facebook now lets you stalk by name

You can no longer hide your name from Facebook searches. We asked our resident expert, Dr. Facebook, to tell us what that really means

There’s been quite the hullabaloo about changes to Facebook’s privacy settings this week (no. 3,457 in a series), in particular, your inability to keep strangers from finding your Facebook profile. As is typical with all Facebook privacy changes, though, a lot of confusion and misinformation is being spread.

To sort out the mess, TY4NS asked Dr. Facebook (not his real name) to weigh in with answers to some of the most pressing questions. Dr. Facebook is a privacy expert of some note who wishes to remain anonymous because, well, it’s none of your damned business, actually.

What’s the deal with Facebook no longer allowing people to block name searches?

You used to be able to check a box that said, essentially, don’t let strangers find my Facebook profile by searching on my name. And now you can’t do that. Last December Facebook turned off that option for new users; this week, it started removing that feature from anyone who had been using it up until now. Those people saw something that looked like this:

ty4ns-facebook jane smith-550.png

Image credit: Facebook newsroom

Does this mean that anyone can now find everything you’ve ever posted to Facebook?

No. Nothing else has changed. What anyone else can find still depends on how you’ve set up your privacy controls, using the Privacy and Tools menu or the dropdown box on each post. If your status posts are set to “Friends” only by default, then only friends can see them. If they’re set to “Everyone,” then … you get the picture.

And just in case you don’t, here’s a picture:

ty4ns-facebook privacy settings for posts.png

So what’s the practical effect of this change?

It depends.

You’re starting to sound like a lawyer.

There’s no need to get nasty.

If you’ve got a Facebook account and you’re trying to hide from someone – like, say, an abusive ex spouse, a crazy stalker, or that incredibly annoying former co-worker you’ve been trying to avoid for the last 20 years -- the only way to do that is to find them and block them before they search for you. Otherwise, they can look for your name and find you. Nice, eh?

ty4ns-facebook name search.png

Now, if your name is a common one like Joe Smith or Sally Jones, they’ll probably have to sort through thousands of profiles before they reach yours. If you’re Zbigniew Brzezinski, though, not so much.

And the more information you share in your “About” info – like where you live or work or went to school, which Facebook makes public by default – the easier it will be for abusive, crazy, and annoying people to narrow down their search.

So why did Facebook do this?

You want the real reason or the official reason? The official reason comes via a blog post from Chief Privacy Officer Michael Richter:

The setting also made Facebook's search feature feel broken at times. For example, people told us that they found it confusing when they tried looking for someone who they knew personally and couldn't find them in search results, or when two people were in a Facebook Group and then couldn't find each other through search.

The real reason is because Facebook always wants to make as much information as public as possible so it’s easier to monetize you via targeted ads. It’s the same reason they insist on “real identities” for people who sign up. This is just another leak in the steady drip-drip-drip of your not-so-personal information.

What can people do about this, besides leave Facebook?

If you must use Facebook, and you still want to remain relatively private, you can do it using a fake name, like Neal Down or Ben Dover. You can go into your Account settings and change your name up to five times, though if you get too creative Facebook will flag it as a fake. (So, sadly, Seymour Butz will not work.) You should also remember to change your username – the name Facebook puts in your Timeline page URL – as well.

[screen]

ty4ns-facebook name change.png

Doesn’t this kind of fakery violate Facebook’s terms of service?

Yes, totally. At the same time, though, Facebook has publically acknowledged there are something like 80 million fake accounts already, which means the real number of fakes is probably much larger. As a publically traded company, Facebook has absolutely no incentive to do anything that would make its membership numbers go down. So the odds of anything bad happening to your account are minimal.

Is this the worse thing to ever happen to privacy, like, ever?

You have heard of the NSA, I trust? There was a time when a change like this would have Facebook users hoisting torches and pitchforks; you could hear panties twisting all across the InterWebs. This change is going down pretty smoothly, in large part because there are so many worse privacy violations to worry about.

Still, social networks are one of the things spooks rely on to determine if you and/or your friends fit the profile of a bad guy and are thus worth spying on. So now would be an excellent time to pare your list of Facebook “friends” way back to actual friends, and to crank your privacy settings up to 11.

If you still want to engage in spammy exchanges of information with near-total strangers, you can always use LinkedIn – just as God and Reid Hoffman intended.

Got a question about social media or privacy? TY4NS blogger Dan Tynan may have the answer (and if not, he’ll make something up). Follow him on Twitter: @tynanwrites For the latest IT news, analysis and how-to’s, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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