Online Identity Verification – Why Digital Platforms Must Go Further
by James Diba, Client Operations Director at TPA Digital
Online identity has for too long been subject to manipulation, counterfeiting and outright deceit. This has to stop.
In a break from tradition of my usual programmatic focused thoughts, three life events struck me recently and prompted me to write down my thoughts on why identity across digital platforms must be better…
A string of high-profile footballers have recently spoken out about racism that they have suffered across social platforms prompting widespread coverage and reviews on how social platforms tackle online abuse. This abuse is not limited to race and we have tragically seen many lives lost due to the abuse that people have received at the hands of these ‘keyboard warriors’.
What amazes me is that upon looking further into this issue I often read comments defending such actions saying “don’t post online if you don’t want to be abused” or “everyone is entitled to an opinion”. Whilst I understand that everyone is entitled to their own opinion, in the vast, vast majority of cases this abuse is being sent from accounts which do not reveal the persons true identity. If their true identity was exposed, they would not be posting such comments. Equally people can hide behind the protection of digital walls and abuse people with comments that they would never make to a person in the real world.
As the late Caroline Flack said “In a world where you can be anything, be kind”.
Bizarrely I was recently the subject of a catfishing attempt (I guess the badly ageing 30-something programmatic consultant is the look somebody was going for?!). I received a message request via Instagram, which for once didn’t appear to be from a bot, so I responded only to discover that this lady had been talking to somebody who had been using my pictures for the last week. Thanks to her own investigative work, she had been able to identify that the person she had been talking to, was using my pictures instead of their own and so reached out to me.
After further looking into it, it transpired that this person had in fact started using these pictures (which are simply available via a google search) over 5 years ago! Terrifyingly “Tom, 32, from Gloucestershire” had been asking women to meet up with him/her across many dating platforms. I don’t want to think what the end game would be in that situation, or how many people this had happened to, but I’m sure you can imagine how unsettling that is given that this profile links to my pictures.
This situation is not uncommon – there is an entire TV show dedicated to exposing people who catfish! It’s dangerous and can ruin lives. There are solutions available immediately to prevent this from happening.
A friend of mine tragically lost the life of their 5 year old nephew a little over one year ago. In the immediate aftermath of this tragedy whilst the family were struggling to come to terms with their loss, they discovered that a fundraising page had been set up to raise money to support the family during this time.
The account that had setup the fundraising page then setup a Facebook account pretending to be a cousin of the family (using the actual name of the cousin, inclusive of the family surname) and messaged contacts of the family asking for donations.
They had no idea who was responsible for this, how they could get the fake Facebook account banned and how they could ensure that the page was taken down to avoid any contributions going to the person committing this fraud.
There are many ways in which identity is misused online and the above areas are just some recent examples that struck me personally. What amazes me is that for the most part we have come to accept this as ‘just something that happens online’. Why do we accept this?
The availability of mobile devices is making digital platforms increasingly available, but the prevention of identity misuse has, from my viewpoint, barely moved on in the last decade. Now, I am no expert on the prevention of identity misuse, cybercrime, nor do I deeply understand the inner workings of how digital platforms are truly tackling these issues, however, from an outsiders perspective, it feels that not enough is being done.
I recently experienced two ways in which my digital identity was verified successfully which I believe can very quickly and very easily help to prevent identity misuse:
When making some online updates via my pension provider, I was asked to complete an identity check. This required me at that very time to take a picture of my passport or photo ID and to take a selfie in order to verify the identity. This service was provided by an external vendor and is able to ensure that the selfie is taken at the time of request. Within 2 minutes my identity had been verified and I was able to complete the updates with my pension provider.
My upstairs neighbours are currently in the process of selling their property and I was required to sign some documentation. Strict verification protocols for solicitors would usually have meant that I would need to go into their office to comply with their ‘know your client’ protocols. Due to Covid-19 they are now using an app called Thirdfort to provide this identity verification. Upon downloading the app, I was asked to verify my identity which involved uploading photo ID, a selfie, as well as recording a video requiring me to move my head from side-to-side and saying a sequence of 4 numbers which were presented to me on the screen.
If social platforms such as Facebook and Twitter really want to prevent abuse, fake news, hate speech etc. then why not implement a proper verification process for every single profile which is created on their platform? I understand that there may be hesitancy or resistance to providing this level of information to these platforms, however, if completely handled by a 3rd party entity then this should help to allay most concerns.
From an advertisers perspective, they stand to gain from this in a number of ways:
No fake profiles to serve ads to
Verified identities to ensure that targeted demographics are correct
Likely to see a reduction in unsafe content or fake news which ads could appear against if identities are properly verified
Beyond the social platforms, this could also help across the open web if for example an SSP has to properly verify the identity of a publisher for whom they are going to sell ads then you could reduce fraud caused via spoofing, support the demonetisation of fake news – the list goes on.
I’m sure there are many other use cases and areas within digital as a whole, that a more strict approach to identity verification would be beneficial which I haven’t considered here and I would love to hear your thoughts on this topic.
Additionally, it would be great to see the social platforms being challenged more in this area by advertisers and users alike to really drive them to make a meaningful change!