Commentary

FTC Rejects Bid To Mine Social Graph To Verify Parents' Identities

Citing evidence of fake Facebook profiles, the Federal Trade Commission said today that it had rejected a company's application to draw on the social graph in order to confirm people's identity.

“Identity verification via social-graph is an emerging technology and further research, development, and implementation is necessary to demonstrate that it is sufficiently reliable,” the FTC said in a letter sent to AssertID.

The company had sought approval of its plan to use people's Facebook friends (and other social media contacts) to verify the identity of parents of young children. AssertID intended to do so in order to offer a service that would help companies comply with the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, which prohibits Web site operators and app developers from knowingly collecting certain information from children under 13 without their parents' consent.

Many Web site operators and app developers have responded to the law by either banning children under 13, or not collecting data from them. But if online companies want to gather children's information, the businesses must obtain parental consent.

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The FTC says that businesses can use any method to obtain consent, as long as it is "reasonably calculated to ensure that the person providing consent is the child’s parent.” One possibility endorsed by the FTC involves requiring parents to pay for something with a credit card; another approved option requires parents to call a toll-free phone number.

AssertID recently asked the FTC to approve its system, which would involve asking a parent's social-network contacts to confirm that the parents' names and relationship to the children.

The FTC said in a letter sent to AssertID that the company hasn't yet shown that its system will work. “AssertID’s limited beta testing of its product does not demonstrate that social-graph verification will work in a live environment or that the method is reasonably calculated to ensure the person providing consent is the child’s parent,” the FTC wrote.

The agency added that some critics of the proposal raised persuasive arguments about the reliability of the method. “Commenters note that users can easily fabricate Facebook profiles,” the FTC wrote. The agency added that children under 13 have been known to lie about their age in order to create social media accounts, and that Facebook itself said in a recent Securities and Exchange Commission filing that it has approximately 83 million phony accounts.

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