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Online impersonations: no validation required

How do you know what's real and what's not?

Can you picture it?

Online impersonation does not always need a specific profile or account. For example, YouTube allows anyone to upload virtually anything. All you need is a YouTube account, and that only requires a username, password, and email address - none of which are validated.

With YouTube, it is easy to upload videos - whether you have permission or not. And while you can remove a video that you uploaded, it can be difficult to remove a video that someone else uploaded. According to YouTube, you need to file a DCMA "counter-notice". However, this is only for the removal of materials where you claim copyright. What about harmful or malicious videos? For example, what if someone has a video of you in the bathroom that was taken with a hidden camera? What if someone says that the video is you when it really isn't? Well, these are not covered by the DMCA and YouTube has no documented procedure for this type of removal request.

However, even if you have a valid DMCA counter-notice claim for YouTube, you might not see any response. Recently Viacom filed suit against YouTube for $1bn, claiming that there are almost 160,000 unauthorised videos that have been viewed more than 1.5 billion times.

These are not the only problems with YouTube's repudiation system. Recently, a 15-year-old impersonated Australia's ABC Television and sent a DMCA counter-notice to YouTube. YouTube responded by sending infringement notices to users and many video clips were removed. (This begs the question, why couldn't Viacom get this kind of response?)

Virtual credibility

While email, web, and MySpace require imposters to register accounts, impersonations can happen in any forum where the identity is not authenticated and validated. For example, Wikipedia has long struggled with impersonators. In some cases, vandals have entered fake information in Wikipedia. For example, the comedian Sinbad is not dead, and John Seigenthaler was not behind the Kennedy assassinations.

Following the Seigenthaler incident, Wikipedia changed their system to require registration prior to creating pages or uploading images. Creating an account simply requires a user-supplied name and password. There is no authentication and no validation. You can create an account with a one-time username and password, and then immediately upload files, create pages, or edit existing ones to your heart's content.

Currently, Wikipedia is considering methods to validate contributors' credentials. This comes on the heels of another Wikipedia scandal, where a user falsely claimed to be an expert in sociology.

Fortunately, misinformation on Wikipedia can be painlessly resolved. Ironically, the one thing you should not do on Wikipedia is correct the information yourself (or have a friend make the corrections). Instead, you should follow Wikipedia's very detailed process for handling disputes and abuse. In the worst case, pages can be quickly corrected and locked from future editing.

Conclusion

The real problem with online identities is not that anyone can impersonate you. The problem is that the impersonations are enabled by public technologies and services. Gmail, Yahoo!, and MySpace all have methods to refute an identity and authenticate yourself after an account is created. With each service, you must validate yourself in order to cancel an imposter's account or fake profile. However, these services do not use any form of validation for opening the account in the first place.

In addition, existing authentication methods for refuting an identity lack any true security basis, and newer technologies, such as Jott and Twitter, are similarly vulnerable to impersonation.

It is said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Unfortunately, online social networks provide no method for distinguishing an impersonation from the real thing. While your online words and actions may circulate for years, so do those of an impersonator.

This article originally appeared in Security Focus.

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