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Gummi bear keeps Facebook user at bay

Extra login security step can block users from their accounts...if their friends are jokers.

Why would Facebook ask a user to name a gummi bear?

Like other big Web services, notably financial ones, Facebook has an adaptive login system that can ask for additional proof of identity when it sees users logging in from new or unfamiliar computers. But the peculiarities of how people use Facebook can make the system unworkable, locking out valid users by asking them to name a Facebook friend when identification is just about impossible.

CNET reader Eleanor Herman contacted us and said that when she was on vacation and tried to log in to Facebook from a borrowed computer, the system put up a picture of a friend's profile photo and asked her to prove that she was the owner of the account by matching a name to the photo. Seems sensible, no? Unfortunately, one of Herman's friends is a bit of a joker, and had replaced his or her photo with a picture of a gummi bear.

If you can guess which of your friends uses this as their profile picture, you're all set. Screenshot by Eleanor Herman

But it's not just silly profile photos that could stymie Facebook users who hit this speedbump. Facebook users who have "friends" they've never met face-to-face could also get locked out.

I asked Facebook about this. Company rep Simon Axten told me, "We use an algorithm similar to the one we use for News Feed to show tagged photos of people with whom the account owner is likely to have a closer connection. We also allow the person to skip up to two photos."

Herman is unconvinced. "It didn't work in my case," she wrote. "Do you know how many times I flunked the test? Lots of my friends are Renaissance reenactors and wear masks and costumes in their photos. Algorithm Shmalgorithm."

Related Facebook security controls launched this year are explained in a blog post, Staying in control of your logins. Axten also says there's an account access form in the Help Center for users who are having problems with logins. Wisely, it's available even when you're not logged in.