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Can UK’s proposed age checks for social media work without biometrics?

Can UK’s proposed age checks for social media work without biometrics?

Social media companies and “tech giants” may voluntarily make age verification compulsory via physical credentials to prevent children encountering harmful material online, according to proposals from Dame Rachel de Souza, the Children’s Commissioner for England. An age verification firm argues biometrics-based facial analysis would be the better option.

If firms fail to do so, the voluntary industry approach could be replaced with legislation, forcing them to enforce age checks, said de Souza, criticizing the weaknesses of the government’s planned new Online Safety Bill, which does not mandate age checks.

The Children’s Commissioner has been commissioned by the Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden and Education Secretary Gavin Williamson to formulate plans to ensure social media and “tech giants” verify the age of users.

The news emerges from an interview by Rachel de Souza with The Telegraph, a move already being criticized as it puts potentially highly significant government plans behind a paywall.

Dame Rachel will meet social media bosses this week to urge them to take tougher action to prevent under 13 year-olds from using their services.

“I would argue for a strong form of age verification to protect children from accessing some really damaging material. It’s not like when we were kids, just seeing a magazine on a top shelf. It’s really serious stuff that’s affecting them and it’s our responsibility to do something about it,” de Souza is quoted as saying.

“Wouldn’t it be great if the tech companies did that voluntarily and took their responsibilities seriously, rather than try to avoid it. Surely, they don’t want children accessing this stuff online. They just need to bite the bullet on this one.”

The Children’s Commissioner says that age verification for children would require them to provide a photo of official ID such as a passport or school or NHS number which would be verified against an official database. It is not clear whether the plan would involve biometric liveness detection of the user or verification with facial recognition.

She said that the age estimation technologies are not as advanced as other approaches but quickly catching up.

Yoti CEO responds

London-based biometric age verification provider Yoti, which provides a digital version of the CitizenCard for age verification, has already responded, criticizing the proposals.

Co-founder and CEO, Robin Tombs took to LinkedIn to post a response stating that a quarter or 1.5 million of the UK’s 5 million teenagers do not have any photo ID. But they could easily submit another person’s ID details or photo of a credential.

“Liveness and selfie capture to complete a photo check to a passport image would reduce under age people using borrowed ID, but any submitted selfie could be more quickly age estimated and deleted,” writes Tombs.

“There’s also the challenge that a HM Passport Office check currently costs £0.50 and DVLA [Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency] can’t currently be used for ID checks.”

He states that the proposed method will fail commercially, while feedback from age-restricted sites already using Yoti’s face biometrics-based age verification is positive.

Problems with pornography

The government’s previous attempt to introduce age verification for sites with adult content was delayed and then abandoned in October 2019. Porn sites are not covered by the current draft bill.

According to The Telegraph, Dame Rachel has already met with the heads of large pornography sites who have said they are ready to voluntarily introduce age verification provided it is industry-wide. There are no details on whether this would be based on biometrics.

De Souza’s interview appears just two days before the end of the 12 month transition period for the UK’s Age Appropriate Design code. From 2 September 2021, all internet services will have to identify child users and introduce measures to make their sites child-friendly unless the user has already verified that he or she is an adult.

Instagram today announced it has begun asking all users to enter their dates of birth, reports The Guardian, although it will not require verification.

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