Rob Barbour has found a new way of enhancing his reputation online: showcasing his newly verified identity. When he put up an eBay Inc. listing a few weeks ago, the Ashburn, Va., technology consultant embedded a link to his new online profile on verification service Trufina Inc.
He soon will paste the link in his emails and on a Web site where he sells software and offers programming advice. “I needed a tool that will prove to somebody that this is who I am,” says Mr. Barbour, 39 years old.
Proving who you are is increasingly important on the Web, amid growing concern that pervasive Internet fraud is making it difficult to know whom to trust. In response, companies are developing a slew of new tools to help people confirm their identities. The new services allow consumers to create and share verified personal profiles with people they meet or do business with online.
In recent weeks, many of these services have announced new partnerships with popular social-networking, shopping and dating sites, which face particular pressure to keep out cyber crooks. Trufina, which has recently joined up with dating sites like HonestyFirst.com and Loveaccess.com, relaunched last week with a wider menu of verification tools. Opinity Inc., a new profile-sharing service that verifies a user's age, hometown and, in coming weeks, education and employment history, has recently announced partnerships with social-networking sites like GoingOn.com, classified site Edgeio.com and technology-news site CNET.com. IDology Inc., which performs age and identity checks on customers for high-end online merchants, will this week announce a deal with Zoey's Room, a networking site for girls, marking the first time its age and identity-verification technology will be part of a social-networking site.
Whether they're shopping, chatting, doing business or looking for dates, consumers are increasingly on edge about online safety. In 2005, 59 percent of Americans “completely or strongly” agreed that Internet-based financial transactions were secure, down from 70 percent in 2003 according to Informa Research Services. A recent report from the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that 66 percent of Internet users believe online dating is dangerous because it puts personal information online.
Concerns about the safety of minors, in particular, have exposed the need for more effective ways to confirm a person's identity than a user name and a password. Social-networking sites attempt to protect their members by imposing minimum age restrictions but can't easily enforce them. News Corp.’s MySpace.com, which requires members to be at least 14 years old, told Congress in June that it is looking at age-verification technology but hasn't yet found any effective options.
Proposed solutions for protecting children from online predators are controversial. Last week the House of Representatives passed a bill that bans social-networking sites and chat rooms from schools and libraries that receive certain federal funding. The bill, which has been criticized as too broad and blunt by some online-privacy groups, has been referred to a Senate committee.
A growing number of businesses, too, are using online verification services to check out their customers. Wine company Kendall-Jackson uses IDology's age-verification technology to confirm that new customers on two of its e-commerce sites are at least 21 years old, and it plans to implement more-comprehensive identity verification soon to help combat credit-card fraud. Ice.com, an online jeweler, uses IDology's tools to authenticate buyers whom it flags as high-risk, which include those with particularly high transaction volumes or mismatched addresses.
Microsoft Corp. is addressing online-safety concerns by constructing its own identity technology from scratch. The technology, called Windows CardSpace, is in a very early stage but will be built into its upcoming Windows Vista operating system. CardSpace allows users to log into Web sites by clicking on different digital credentials, or information cards. Users could create their own information cards or they could get the credentials issued to them by a trusted party, like a bank. (Microsoft doesn't host or store the identity information; it just provides the technology for its transfer.) CardSpace is meant to be more secure and useful than passwords because information cards can hold more information, like an address or a credit-card number, and can be backed by a third party.
International Business Machines Corp., Novell Inc. and various other academics and vendors are working together on a similar project. Their technology, dubbed “Project Higgins,” would be open-source.
But radically new tools like these won't be rolled out widely before next year. In the meantime, current services tend to focus on creating a trusted profile that can be used across sites or shared. The services, which collaborate with background-checking companies of the sort corporations use to research future hires, often check attributes like age, address, gender, education, employment and whether a person has a criminal record. Most services provide a basic verification of name, email, and sometimes address free of charge. Anything more can cost up to around $15 a year. The information is typically checked against credit-bureau records and other publicly available data, like property listings and databases of known criminals and sex offenders.
To sign up, users enter their personal data and are sometimes asked to answer a series of tricky multiple-choice questions no one else will likely be able to answer, such as the size of their last mortgage payment. Some details are confirmed automatically; others take time. On Trufina, a basic verification takes two to three minutes, with a background check usually taking less than 10 minutes, says Christian Madsen, chief executive of the College Park, Md., company.
Users can sign up through the services’ own home pages or through a partner site, where some of the costs are absorbed into other membership fees. Loveaccess.com, an online-dating site with two million members, charges customers $145 for a year of its premium service, which requires a Trufina background check.
Currently, the services aren't in widespread use. Indeed, some consumers complain that their verified profiles aren't yet particularly helpful. Max Markidan, a 26-year-old management consultant in Arlington, Va., says he doesn't find it useful for professional networking because few users beyond dating sites appear to have adopted it. “I am married, so I can't really use Trufina at this point,” he says.
The companies’ partnerships with popular sites will make or break their adoption, analysts say, by providing them with necessary revenue and more users.
While many of the services aim to assuage privacy concerns, they may run up against them, too. Briana Doyle, a 24-year-old from New Westminster, British Columbia, joined Opinity last month hoping it would help her aggregate personal information about herself she wished to share with other people online. But she stopped short at divulging details like her address, verifying instead her user names on other Web services like Yahoo's photo-sharing site Flickr, which the service also verifies. “I didn't see any reason to put my address front and center,” says the Web editor.
The companies stress that they don't store personal information about their users. But consumers may still shrink from a service they think knows too much about them. “The minute you aggregate identity information you aggregate risk,” says Jamie Lewis, the chief executive of the Burton Group, a Salt Lake City research firm. With hackers out looking for financial information, “you create a target,” he says.
The Verification Chain
How new identity-verification services work.
- Users sign up for a new account on a classified, social-networking or dating site and are prompted to click through to the site of an identity verifier.
- Verification service prompts users to create profiles with details such as their age, address, and occupation.
- Verification services — or a separate company — electronically check data in public-record databases to verify assertions.
Once it supports Information Cards, a company like Opinity might offer a card that would assert an age or marital status and yet ensure no personally identifying information is communicated. The most important aspect of this is that users won't need to reveal secret or identifying information to anyone but the Identity Provider (Opinity for example).