Would you be willing to give Facebook your fingerprint if it meant the death of trolls?
Authenticity, partly by design, has never been a huge part of social media. I don’t mean the glamourised lives of fake Instagram millionaires, but in a more humdrum, prosaic way: you’re not that funny, good looking or popular in real life as you appear on Facebook or Instagram. Nobody is. “On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog”, as the old New Yorker cartoon made clear.
That was fine, once. Social media isn’t online banking. Why would you need photo ID and two-factor authentication? What does it matter if people aren’t who they say they are?
The tide is now turning.
You’ve got a two-class system on Twitter, which can’t make up its mind as to whether a blue tick is a pat on the head or a ID card; you have nation states deliberately causing chaos with fake accounts; terrorists spreading propaganda; and a world where insults, abuse and death threats are just part of the grammar of internet chatter. The old adage that “if you can’t think of anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all” feels an anachronism in our combative troll-filled modern day internet.
It’s not a great trajectory, to be honest, but what can we do at this point? The culture seems to be set in stone. One man has an interesting answer, even if it is a tad controversial.
The case for biometrics
James Stickland is CEO of Veridium ID – a company that specialises in biometrics security for governments, healthcare, financial services and other sectors where being certain of someone’s identity is essential.
“I think there’s still a place for opaqueness, but equally, I think there’s a much broader expectation that there should be complete transparency.”
In his world, biometrics are a necessary part of life for security and peace of mind – but why couldn’t it go further? At WIRED Security earlier this year, he made the case for biometrics as a way to tackle trolls and all flavours of internet troublemaker. It was an off-the-cuff response to a question raised in a panel discussion, but when I spoke to him by telephone some months later, Stickland made a surprisingly compelling case for a dramatic change of approach.
“If we look at the world events over the past few years, I’m not sure we can have quite the anonymity we would all necessarily like when it comes to public interaction,” Stickland explains. “So I think there’s still a place for opaqueness, but equally, I think there’s a much broader expectation that there should be complete transparency.”
In summary: people believe in privacy and anonymity but when it comes to the internet, our anonymous approach has supercharged a lot of problems that are easily containable offline: death threats, radicalisation and fake news, to name just three. In other words: we can’t have nice things. Could making people sign up to social media with a fingerprint or an iris scan make that go away?
“My view was that it creates the right behaviour,” Stickland responds. “I’m a former banker and if there’s an expectation that you’re being tracked, surprise surprise, people’s behaviour happens in a far more professional format. That’s the same for the internet: people live in this bizarre mental state where they don’t feel there’s any degree of oversight happening on any website they’re looking at.
“As soon as you log in, there’s a mental switch in the psyche that says there’s some degree of tracking, so I think it would naturally drive a better behaviour.”
Maybe – although anecdotally people can be just as rude within Facebook comments where their name, face and location is signposted for anyone to see. But then, the internet as a whole is a spectrum of bad behaviour: rudeness is the very mild end, but activity that’s illegal offline is remarkably easy to get away with online.
“If there’s an expectation that you’re being tracked, surprise surprise, people’s behaviour happens in a far more professional format.”
Stickland’s system would allow more nuance when dealing with different cases, rather than the binary system of banning or not banning. Someone with a restraining order against another person offline could easily have that extended online, if the biometric framework was sophisticated enough and sites cooperated.
Again, it comes back to Stickland’s banking background, where the industry is very efficient at sharing blacklists of “fraudulent individuals, hackers and bad clients.” If this could be shared between websites, “why wouldn’t you want to do that with identity in a similar way with social profiles?”
Okay, so Stickland has a vested interest here – his whole business is biometrics, and more widespread use would be unambiguously good news for him and his company. All the same, this approach would focus the mind, Stickland believes, and at the very least make people think twice about their actions.
“If I’m a football hooligan and I get banned from every ground because I’m a hooligan at one ground, people understand the consequences and understand the severity, and I think they act a little differently.”
This runs the risk of sounding a little draconian, but it actually only need be as strict as we as a society want it to be. “There is a variety of different ways [sites] could filter the outcome, based on the understanding of the individual,” Stickland explains. “You don’t want to say ‘you offended once, therefore you can’t be reintegrated into society’; a more sensible way of managing internet policy would be to ensure we work in a more collaborative world.
“As much as the internet has brought us all together, it’s driven us to the four corners as well.”
Resistance from all sides
These ideas are likely to have pushback from all quarters. Privacy campaigners fear Big Brother, while social networks wouldn’t welcome the transparency either: everyone knows Twitter is bot-filled, but the biometrically-proved exact figures could spook its shareholders into a total collapse. “I couldn’t agree more, I think they’d hate it to be brutally honest – especially commercially,” Stickland agrees.
So practically speaking, who would decide on what a banning offence is? Stickland’s answer sounds surprisingly close to what we have offline: a trial by jury. “It needs to be a council represented by all corners, with equal voting rights,” suggests Stickland, highlighting possible representatives from the web, government, law and media. “Everyone’s going to have their own nuance and vested views, but at least you’d have an aggregate that would have fair representation.”
Biometrics, Stickland concedes, would have to be stored locally and matched centrally in order to allay fears that Google could create “a clone of you in 15 minutes,” but he seems to feel that the web is in such a state now people wouldn’t necessarily recoil in horror as they would have ten or even five years ago.
“I think it’s almost a necessity for us to manage the craziness of the wild wild west that’s been created online.”
All the same, I have to ask him one question as I finish the call. I’ve asked him to elaborate on an idea he came up with on a panel discussion – does he really believe in this, or is it his own modern day Modest Proposal? “I do. I really do think it’s a viable way to go, and I think it’s almost a necessity for us to manage the craziness of the wild wild west that’s been created online,” he replies. “And not because I subscribe to any totalitarian approaches or strict communist regimes.”
“I can only base it on my own life experiences and my own interactions with the world, and I think I’d be comfortable. I don’t think people who don’t want it have something to hide – that’s by no means my view – but I think most people are open to some transparency for everybody’s safety, and less fraud and less hurt in general. So I’m a total subscriber to it.”
Whether you are or not depends a lot on your outlook, and whether you think we’ve already hit rock bottom in terms of internet behaviour, or whether there are deeper depths to plumb yet.