The simple and prosaic case of age verification has always been a litmus test for digital identity infrastructure and it’s taken on new dimensions because of social networking. We need some clear thinking to see through fog of moral panic, made worse by the turbocharging impact of the mobile phone, because it is such an individual and personal device. The spectre of legions of perverts luring children via their mobile phones is, indeed, disturbing. If only there were some way to know whether your new social networking friend is actually a child of your age and not an adult masquerading as such.
A mobile phone application which claims to identify adults posing as children is to be released. The team behind Child Defence says the app can analyse language to generate an age profile, identifying potential paedophiles.[From BBC News – Researchers launch mobile device ‘to spot paedophiles’]
Of course, it ought to work the other way round as well. One of my son’s friends told me that members of his World of Warcraft Guild (all 13- and 14-year olds) enjoy pretending to be “grown ups” online (by pretending to have jobs and wives). But this seems an odd way to move forward, as well as something that will surely be gamed by determined perverts.
Why on Earth can’t we just do this properly, at the infrastructural level. If we had a half-decent digital identity infrastructure, there would be no need for this sort of thing. Look, here’s a simple of example of this, in Japan. If you want to use social networks via your mobile phone then it is the operator who verifies your age to the social network service (SNS) provider. Since the operator has the billing relationship, this makes sense.
KDDI announces age verification service for mobile SNS platforms; Gree, Mixi and MobaGa to start at the end of Jan[From Mobile SNS Age Verification Service by Wireless Watch Japan]
Note that this has no implications for privacy. The operator could require you to come to one of their outlets and prove that you are, say, 18. Then they set a flag for service providers to tell them that you are over 18. It doesn’t tell them your age, or your name or where you are. Just that you are over 18. Note that this system hasn’t been invented for social networking: it is already used to prove age at vending machines (you can’t buy cigarettes or sake or whatever unless your phone says that you are old enough). It ought to be simple enough to do the same thing but using proper technology. Suppose that your Facebook page came with a red border if you have not provided proof of age? Then you could provide that proof of age and have your border changed to blue for under 18 or green for over 18 – then make the rule that anyone with a red border is only allowed to connect to people with green borders.
You see what I mean. Have something that is understandable at the user level and implement it using certificates, digital signatures and keys in tamper-resistant storage (in, for example, mobile phones). There would be no need to try and explain to people how PKI actually works (which killed it in the mass consumer market last time), just show them how to log in to things using their phones. There’s a waiting mass market for this sort of thing if you can be clear to consumers that it will protect their privacy and that market is adult services: porn and gambling, primarily, either of which should generate a decent income stream for the successful service provider. Simple. As a complete aside, there’s another connection between the adult world and social networking.
The surprise relationship between social networking and adult-themed sites came last September, when total page visits for social networking sites for the first time eclipsed that of adult sites.[From BBC NEWS | Technology | Porn putting on its Sunday best]
So the internet isn’t all about porn after all!
These opinions are my own (I think) and presented solely in my capacity as an interested member of the general public [posted with ecto]