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We Still Don't Know How Old Anyone Online Is

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Last month, we talked about the suddenly popular practice of checking patron’s Facebook (FB) profiles against their IDs at some bars. To avoid liability for underage drinking, many bouncers had taken to demanding that young looking party-ers pull up their profiles on their iPhones (AAPL), Androids (GOOG), or BlackBerries (RIMM) before entering.

Obviously, privacy advocates were upset. Beyond that, as we pointed out, it’s very, very easy to change your birthday on Facebook, and, besides, the social media company doesn’t require users to share their birth date.

Still, congratulations to bouncers the world over for thinking outside of the box!

Recent events at the social media site have brought the conversation about age verification online back to the forefront. Myspace’s former chief security officer puts it best when, in the New York Times, he says, “Companies do age verification because they know they’re supposed to, but everybody knows it doesn’t really work.”

Issues arose at Skout after several teenage users reported being sexually assaulted by older patrons. In spite of age-verification through Facebook, many older, predatory people managed to find their way on to the site.

Back in 2008, a group of safety advocates and legal officials put together a task force co-directed by a Microsoft (MSFT) senior researcher with the idea of finally solving the problem of online age verification. They listened to proposals from forty different companies with plans that ranged from devices that scanned users fingers to age them to large-scale databases with data on everyone in the country.

Nothing worked.

What it comes down to is two problems: One, we don’t have the ability to physically verify someone’s age when they go online. And two, American privacy advocates will never allow a national database to be built that collects information on everyone in this country. As the backlash against Google’s Street View privacy violations showed, most Americans are deeply upset by the idea of having some larger force monitor everything they do.

So, for right now, there’s no easy solution. Until someone figures things out, remember the old adage: On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.
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