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Proof of age system moves net ID a step closer

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The UK moved one step closer to online ID for all last week as the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) decided to give accreditation to NetIDme’s age verification software. But for once this may be not cause for complete doom and gloom. Also added to the list are GB Group (with their URU product) and 192.com.

In one sense this step – or one very like it - was inevitable. As El Reg reported back in May, BBFC online uses the Board’s famous ‘black cards’ and category symbols to enable users downloading new media content to judge whether it is suitable for consumption.

However, as the BBFC also announced at the time, it was looking for partners with whom it could work, to ensure that downloads needed some form of positive age-verification: it is a requirement of BBFC online that e-tailers and Video on Demand services have in place age verification software to enable parents to monitor and control underage viewing.

Step forward NetIDme. Under cover of a suitably unpronounceable brand name, NetIDme launched what it claims to be the world’s first online ID card for adults and children two years ago. Chief executive Alex Hewitt said: “BBFC.online is a revolutionary scheme that enables the application of the same rules in the online world that have been developed over many years to protect people in the real world.”

Not surprisingly, therefore, he is over the moon that his software is one of the first to be accredited by the BBFC, describing it as a “ringing endorsement”.

Opponents of ID in any form will be outraged. Well-known anti-censorship site MelonFarmers inveighed against NetIDme (19 July) on the grounds that a database of people’s porn-viewing habits would undoubtedly be of great interest to government. In this case, however, the chances are that they are wrong.

The principles underlying NetIDme’s technology are far closer to the Open Source ID project and involve the assembling of key data items to create a “token” that users may use as future verification of age. Thereafter, they claim, the data is then disassembled again. Hey presto! Individual ID, without a massive underlying database.

Crossing wires

This is rather different from, say, the direction taken by GB Group, which uses matching against a number of underlying databases (Birth Register, Postal Address File, Electoral Register) to create a virtual record that then determines whether you are who you say you are.

GB Group also makes use of fuzzy matching techniques where an exact match is not possible.

So NetIDme would appear to be useful where you want something akin to an online ID card (without the underpinning database), while GB Group is more appropriate for one-off purchases.

Neither solution is quite the same as the government approach, which is all about large central databases with enormous hacking potential. It may be that this new approach will, in the long run, be one of the strongest arguments yet against a national database.

If one can achieve the stated aims of government by use of tokens or fuzzy matching they have very few legs left to stand on.

Meanwhile in the States, an interesting by-product of this new approach emerges from the Third Circuit Court of Appeal. This re-iterated the stance now familiar to US legislators, that American jurists find the Child Online Protection Act “over-broad” and in danger of exerting a chilling effect on speech.

It also added an interesting new argument – which was that the government now needs to seriously consider whether filtering software has reached the point where some elements of internet policing may safely be placed back in the hands of parents. In other words, as technology starts to heal itself, the scope for government intervention becomes less.

Watch this space, as the issue almost inevitably now heads for the Supreme Court. ®

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