Ofcom’s Age Verification Proposals Pose ‘Significant’ Privacy, Security Risk

Reaction has emerged as campaigners respond to Ofcom’s proposals for age verification checks on porn websites.

Ofcom’s proposals, as part of the Government’s controversial Online Safety Act, will require UK users accessing porn websites to either provide scans of their faces, their bank or credit card details, or upload a photo-ID document such as a passport or driving licence, among other measures.

The Open Rights Group however has warned that Ofcom’s proposals risk privacy and security, and pointed out that the Australian government had abandoned similar age verification proposals because of privacy and security concerns, and the UK should take note.

Privacy, security

In its response, the Open Rights Group (ORG) said that while it agrees it is important that children are protected online; Ofcom’s proposed guidelines create serious risks to everyone’s privacy and security.

“Age verification technologies for pornography risk sensitive personal data being breached, collected, shared, or sold,” said Abigail Burke, ORG’s Programme Manager for Platform Power.

“The potential consequences of data being leaked are catastrophic and could include blackmail, fraud, relationship damage, and the outing of people’s sexual preferences in very vulnerable circumstances,” said ORG’s Burke.

“It is very concerning that Ofcom is solely relying upon data protection laws and the ICO to ensure that privacy will be protected,” Burke added. “The Data Protection and Digital Information Bill, which is progressing through parliament, will seriously weaken our current data protection laws, which are in any case insufficient for a scheme this intrusive. Specific and clear privacy rules are needed, given the vast amount of sensitive data that will potentially be processed.”

“Additionally, the ICO has proven itself to be one of the weakest data regulators in Europe and is in urgent need of reform,” said Burke. “Ofcom must go further in setting out clearer standards and guidelines to ensure users’ data will be protected from the substantially increased risk of fraud and cybercrime that comes with invasive age verification technologies.”

The Open Rights Group had a couple of months ago outlined its concerns about the impact of age verification on free speech and privacy in a joint briefing with the EFF.

“Pornography websites that have UK users, or target UK users, will be required to use age verification to ensure that children are not able to encounter their content,” both campaign groups stated. “Age verification is, essentially, identity verification, which makes it effectively impossible to browse pornographic sites anonymously, and creates the risk of data breaches and the potential for data to be collected and potentially shared or sold.”

They noted that that “every age verification method has significant flaws”.

In favour

But not all reaction to age verification proposals has been negative.

“The Ofcom guidance underlines the crucial responsibility of platform providers to implement effective measures to protect the privacy of their users while safeguarding minors,” said Campbell Cowie, head of policy, standards & regulatory affairs at biometric authentication specialist iProov.

“It emphasises the necessity of ensuring that only verified individuals can access age-specific content on their platforms,” said Cowie.

“Given the significant risks posed to children by inappropriate and harmful content, including the false images and misinformation that can be easily created using deepfake tools, age verification, based upon a trusted digital identity, emerges as the sole viable solution.”

“This approach is essential to ensure that only verified users gain access to the platform, thereby mitigating potential risks,” Cowie concluded.

Long time coming?

It should be remembered that the UK government has been trying for years to implement age verification on pornographic websites.

The government of David Cameron had promised age verification checks as far back as 2015 in an effort to stop children from accessing online porn.

However there was already opt-out ISP porn filters introduced by the government in 2013, which was intended to help households control access to adult material, but unintentionally blocked educational resources such as sexual health websites.

All of this came despite the fact that in 2012, a survey by YouGov revealed that just one in four UK adults with children in their household was in favour of having a default porn filter.

The government tried again to implement porn age checking, and it was supposed to have been implemented in April 2018.

But again the government delayed it, despite porn website owners preparing for the legal checks.

In 2018 for example the owner of porn websites including PornHub revealed its online age verification tool call AgeID, that it would use to verify the age of people seeking online smut.

Age verification for porn was then pushed back to 15 July 2019, but in October 2019 the government announced that its long standing plan to introduce porn age checks had been dropped again.

However, with the passing of the Online Safety Bill, age verification is on the way for people in the UK accessing porn websites or apps.

Tom Jowitt

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelancer and long standing contributor to Silicon UK. He is also a bit of a Lord of the Rings nut...

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