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Just how hard can it be to verify the age of a person online?
After all, privacy experts have been braying for years about how much advertisers know about people who use the Internet.
The answer, it turns out, is very hard. Despite attempts by privacy advocates, academics, law enforcement officials, technologists and advertisers to determine a person's age on the Internet, the reality is that it is extremely difficult to discern whether someone is an 11-year-old girl or a 45-year-old man.
The question arose last week after Skout, a mobile social networking app, discovered that, within two weeks, three adults had masqueraded as teenagers in its forum for 13-to 17-year-olds. In three separate incidents, they contacted children and, the police say, sexually assaulted them.
In response, Skout suspended its app for minors, appointed a task force of security specialists to investigate and find solutions and said it would not resume the service until it could find a better way to vet users' ages online. Skout said it had vetted its users ages through Facebook, which officially prohibits members younger than 13 but has acknowledged that children find ways to enter.
The resounding response from those who have studied age verification technologies, and, in some cases, put them in place, has been: Good luck.
The problem is that everyone—not only sex offenders-has an incentive to lie. Children want to enter websites and forums where their older peers are.
The methods the pornography industry uses to confirm online identities of its customers, like credit cards and driver's licences, cannot be used to identify minors, because the absence of those things does not necessarily mean the person is a child. Federal privacy laws also make it illegal for Web companies to knowingly collect personally identifiable information about children younger than 13.
A serious effort to evaluate age verification technologies was made in 2008. At that time, when Facebook was one-ninth its current size, child safety advocates and law enforcement officials expressed concern about sexual predators pursuing children on Myspace, then a Facebook rival. An Internet safety technical task force was convened and experts set to work examining various ways of verifying ages and sequestering children and adults online.
The task force met with 40 companies who said they had solved the problem. They included an ultrasound device maker that scanned users' fingers to determine their age; a vendor that asked users for voice responses to questions so a team of voice analysts could listen for an intent to deceive; and a company that travelled from school to school persuading educators and parents to submit children's personal information—sex, address, school, birth date—to an online database that would be accessible to Internet companies.
The first two ideas do not appear to have made it past the demonstration stage. The third lost momentum after privacy advocates questioned it.
Technologists who have put age verification technologies in place say there is always a way to outsmart the system and that such technologies are, at best, deterrents. The consensus is that the most effective solution for now is not the technologies, but good old-fashioned education and parental vigilance.