How Well Do You Know Your Facebook Friends? Precautions for Travelers


I have visited six countries in the last six months. And every time I've crossed a border (and sometimes even when I haven't), Facebook has known about it.

"We don't recognize the location you're logging in from," they begin. So, in order to test the authenticity of my identity, they ask permission to run me through a few questions.

The first step is easy enough. To prove that I'm not a computer, I have to recognize and enter the squiggly letters and numbers generated for me. No problemo.

However, the next step is slightly more harrowing. I am told that I'll be shown a series of pictures of my Facebook friends, and that I must correctly identify them. Out of the six or so photos, I can say "I don't know" for two. The rest, I must identify — correctly — or I'll be barred access to my account.

A saving grace is that for each photo, I'm given five choices as to who the friend could be, and sometimes I'm shown two photos of the Facebook friend in question. So even if we're not the best of friends, I can sometimes narrow the choices down by the sheer powers of deduction.

But how many friends do you have on Facebook? How well do you know these friends? And how many of these friends like to upload blurry drunken shots from their cell phone, or pictures from childhood, or pictures of something completely unrelated (like their cat) that are accidentally tagged as them?

I have a friend who is a Facebook fiend. If he has the slightest encounter with somebody — anybody — he becomes friends with them on Facebook. For him, it is a challenge to see how many Facebook friends he can accumulate. I have another friend who loves to play Facebook games, and in order to gain status or higher points, she needs to accumulate more friends — and she does so promiscuously. I would wager that the Facebook security process of identifying their "friends" wouldn't auger well for either of them.

Until now, I've been happy to use my personal Facebook account as a bit of a business and social networking tool. I've "friended" people I know online whom I have some sort of relationship with, even if I don't know them really well — despite my inability to identify them in a picture attending some wedding 10 years ago.

But now, with these regular security checks levied every time I change locations (which, as a full-time traveler, is a lot), I'm weary. More than once I've been down to the wire in my photo-identifying frenzy, sometimes having to make educated guesses as to who the "friend" might be since I'd already selected "I don't know" twice.

What happens if you incorrectly identify a friend or otherwise fail the Facebook security test? Thankfully, I don't know. I'm sure there would be some identity-related hoops to jump through in order to reinstate the account — hoops I hope I'll never have to navigate.

This must be a fairly new initiative, because in my near-four years of full-time travels, I've only undergone these security checks in the last few months. And I actually quite like the idea that Facebook is working on security and privacy in this way. But I'm also very wary of accepting anybody I don't personally know (and by personally, I mean in-person) as a friend. To keep in touch with people I don't know as well, I have a fan page. And if you're planning on doing much traveling in the future and want access to your account, you may want to set up a fan page yourself, or study up on your friends' Facebook photos.

How do you use your Facebook account? And how well do you know your Facebook friends? Could you "pass the test"?

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Guest's picture

I recently went through this for the first time from Colombia. I came REALLY close to failing the test. Also paypal flagged me, saying they suspected someone else had accessed my account. So I had to change my password, re-verify my account and actually upload an electronic copy of my bank statement to prove that I hadn't be hacked. And I always have to call Bank of America to inform them of my travels, specifically by country and date or they will lock my account and require me to recite my last two charges-- to the penny.

I don't think this is going to get better for travelers anytime soon.

Nora Dunn's picture

@Christine - I've come close to failing the test a number of stressful! However the last time Facebook didn't recognize me and made me jump through security hoops, I was given the option to instead answer my personal security question, which was much more civilized! Fingers crossed that this is a new option that is available to everybody...

Guest's picture

Interesting. This must be fairly new. I was in London in June and logged in to Facebook and didn't have to do this. Do they use people's profile pictures? I have some friends who don't even use pictures of themselves for their profile picture. Those would be really tough to identify!

Nora Dunn's picture

@Katie - Yes, they do use profile pictures. And part of my frustration with this process stems from the fact that people often get tagged in pictures that aren't even of themselves!

Guest's picture

I first encountered this Facebook test in July when I was in Kenya. Fortunately I didn't have any problems identifying everyone. But some of the photos were a bit tricky to guess. If I needed to do it several times, I'd probably run into trouble at some point, since some of my friends like to tag themselves as objects, or sometimes a person's spouse or other family is tagged as the friend.

Guest's picture

What about Facebook accounts that are not individuals, but businesses pretending to be a person. Perhaps blogs pushing their site? They might have thousands of friends they have never laid eyes on?

Nora Dunn's picture

@Francis - I think that most fan pages (which is what businesses gravitate towards having on Facebook) require a personal account to start with. It's the personal account that gets targeted. But I could be wrong...

Guest's picture

I'm in the same boat... I've had to identify those photos more times than I care to count. We are also traveling full time...

The good news is that, if you don't do it correctly, you simply have to wait an hour and can try again. The bad news is that you can't use Facebook during that hour. Or two hours. Or three... One time it took me something like 5 tries to finally identify enough people correctly.

I've also noticed that it appears to be getting easier and it rarely takes me more than one try nowadays. I think FB put in some type of filter where they only give me the people I tend to interact with the most or somethng like that. I do still get stumped here and there, but not nearly as much a few months ago.

Nora Dunn's picture

@Family on Bikes - I'm glad you were only shut out for an hour (at a time)...I was speaking with somebody who was shut out for days! I've been lucky lately (knock on wood)...

Guest's picture

Some friends change the profile photo as often as they change underwear. God help you if it is a dog or cat, a cartoon, a photo of a small child, or whatever. There is a dove on mine.