Written by Jitendra Gupta of KarmaWeb
and edited by Richard MacManus

On the internet it is easy to pretend to be somebody else.
Don’t like your name, adopt a new one. Don’t like the way you look,
Photoshop your picture. Think you are too young or too old, select a new
age. How is anybody going to find out anyway? As the now classic cartoon goes:
On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.

With the growing popularity of online dating, more and
more people are asking: how do I know you are who you say you are? Also with the
popularity of online peer-to-peer transactions, like the ones at Craigslist or eBay, it is more important then ever to establish that both
parties are
reliable. But how does one establish trust in an environment where it is easy to
pretend? One way to do it is to share personal information, that can help the
other party establish that you are indeed who you say you are. The problem
with such an approach is that the information you give may be abused.

The Solution: Identity Verification Services

This problem has spawned a number of identity verification
services. These services provide a verification-chain framework to both parties,
while protecting sensitive information. These services typically work as
follows:

  • Users sign up for a new
    account on a dating site and are prompted to click through to the site of an
    identity verifier.
  • Users create profiles with
    details such as their name, age, address, and occupation etc.
  • Verification services
    electronically check data in public-record databases to verify assertions
    and prompt users to answer other challenges based on public records.
  • If users pass these
    challenges, they are granted a verified status.

These
services provide value by acting as a mediator in an identity transaction. They
create trust by certifying that the user is indeed the person he/she claims to be,
without disclosing sensitive information about the user to the other party.

Vendors

There are a number of players in this space. The main ones
are Trufina, Opinity
and Idology. Over the course of last year most
of these services have announced new partnerships with popular dating sites, and some
eCommerce and social networking sites.

Trufina
joined up with dating sites HonestyFirst.com and Loveaccess.com.



Opinity Inc. announced partnerships with
Social-networking site GoingOn.com, Classified
site Edgeio.com and Technology
news site CNET.com.



IDology
Inc. announced agreements with Michigan
State Liquor Control Commission, Platform
Shoes Forum (a national nonprofit that runs Zoeys Room – for age
verifications at the point of sign-up, to help shield their members from
online predators) and WineWeb (to perform electronic age verification on direct wine shipments at the
point of sale, on a State by State basis).

A couple of other services in the space are RapLeaf
and iKarma. These services rely on
transaction history (RapLeaf) or explicit recommendation and testimonials (iKarma)
to evaluate the reliability and trustworthiness of an individual. All of these services
provide tight integration at the point of transaction.

Issues

While these companies provide a valuable service, their
penetration outside the online dating space seems to be somewhat limited.
Let’s look at the potential issues with such services.

One of the main issues is that identity validation services rely on public records.
These services typically ask users to provide some personal information, based on which they access public records available for that
person. These services then challenge the users to answer questions, based on
the information in these public records. If the user answers these questions
correctly (i.e. the answers match the information available in public records),
the user is considered verified.

All of the public records are available online for
everybody to search and see. Check out Intelius
and do a search on your name, to access a number of these public records (you
will need to pay to download all your records, but search and superficial results
are free… and beware, you might find information about yourself that you did not think
was public!). Now, if somebody wanted to pretend to be another person, wouldn’t
access to all these public records provide enough information to answer the
challenge questions correctly? How can we really know that the person is indeed
authentic based on such a validation?

Given that such validations cannot be 100% reliable, users can rely on the signaling associated with creating a validated profile. A
validated profile can signal to other users that this user is validated and so takes
his/her identity seriously. On the other hand, it could also signal that the
user is trying hard to come across as authentic! In any case, one way to provide
the best signaling is for a site to mandate a verified identity as a part of
their terms of service – although this extra effort will surely cause some users to shun the
service.

Conclusion

The ability to establish the identity of a person on the
internet is absolutely crucial in a number of social and financial interactions.
There are quite a few companies trying to provide services, to establish user
identity and thereby generate trust in transactions. While these services
fill an important void in order to facilitate online transactions, there is
still a lot of room for improvement.