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  • Writer's pictureIain Corby

Predictions for 2021 - Age Assurance

Updated: Jan 29, 2021

Looking forward to 2021, it is certainly going to be a pivotal year for the age verification sector. We thought we would take this opportunity to look into a crystal ball and sketch out how the year may play out. And, of course, thanks to the indelibility of the Internet, you will be able to look back at the end of the year and see how far wrong we were!

Age, not identity

First of all, we would predict that this will be the year when the distinction between identity verification and age verification emerges far more clearly. To date, the focus has been on preserving anonymity in only the adult content sector. However, as laws and regulations begin to bite which require websites to have a fairly strong idea of the age of each of their users in order to serve only age-appropriate content, there will be a realisation that this could easily lead to children bandying about their personal identity data all over the Internet. This is clearly undesirable and, ironically, itself often illegal if the child is too young to give consent for that data to be processed by the website with which they are engaged.

The time and effort invested by the age verification sector in protecting the privacy of adults visiting pornographic websites will now come into its own for a far wider purpose, namely the protection of children’s data while still enabling them to prove their age online.

Privacy protections

Secondly, the distinction between confirming your age directly to a website where you would be required to share identification, and doing so through an independent third party AV provider is going to become more widely appreciated. The AV specialist can and should be tightly regulated to ensure that its systems comply with GDPR, particularly in respect of the requirement for data minimisation but also in terms of data security, and not to mention delivering reliable age attributes to international standards such as BSI PAS 1296.

Such third parties will allow society to avoid effectively, if unintentionally, creating a universal identity requirement to access much of the internet, and, for those who are concerned about civil liberties, government-issued ID cards by the digital back door.

Verification or Assurance?

Thirdly, we will begin to discern the difference between age verification and age assurance . The latter is a term which has been introduced by the UK government to refer to forms of age check which rely on technology such as artificial intelligence. That means they would not require a full identity check as the basis of their conclusion about a user’s approximate age. Age Assurance is quite hard to explain at the moment because there are few, if any, working examples of it other than facial analysis. In fact, this particular solution complicates the matter because it is already possible to achieve such a high degree of confidence in the age range of a user from facial analysis that it becomes an effective form of verification.

(Just to illustrate, if you use the AI technology to test for an age higher than the required age for any given legal purpose then you can be 99.99% sure that the user is above the age required by law provided the difference between the test age and the legal age provides a wide enough margin for error.)

The assurance method with the most promise of giving a good indication of age would rely on big data techniques, creating a profile of users based on as many clues as possible from their online activities. But it is hard to reconcile this with the very same data protection requirements that age assurance is often seeking to enforce.

Age ranges of children

Fourth, there will still be a rush to develop technology which can assess the age of children below 18 in order to ensure that they are not exposed to content which may be harmful to their mental or physical well-being.

While this is a specific and explicit requirement of the UK’s Age-Appropriate Design Code, it is a natural and logical conclusion when you read GDPR that all websites regulated by EEA states should be doing this. Regulators will need to exercise some patience and pragmatism about the art of the possible before enforcing the need to restrict content from 13 year-olds while still allowing 17 year-olds to access it.

Until government can make the case convincingly to the public that it should give access to its data on the population’s age and parental responsibilities through one-way blind checks to authorised, regulated providers, AV for under 18s will rely on the word of their parent or teacher, or be limited to those kids lucky enough to have a passport.

And, finally, for many pornographic websites

And finally, there will be a panic when Cyprus implements the Audio-Visual Media Services Directive into domestic law and the adult sites based there are, overnight, required to implement strict age verification for all of their users across the European Union. This may be followed quickly by high profile enforcement action which will prompt much of the adult sector which has its business established in Europe to fall into line with this new requirement.

This exercise is not entirely fair, as SafetyTech Limited and our clients will be in many cases driving these changes by raising awareness, developing standards and building the profile of the AV sector and its world-leading technical capabilities.

But let’s see where we get to by December 31st!

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