In 2008, I served on the Internet Safety Technical Task Force, walked out of Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center on behalf of 49 U.S. Attorneys General and MySpace to determine, among other things, whether there was a practical way for social media companies to determine the age of the users. There wasn’t.
Fast forward to 2022. While the technology is still evolving, there are now ways to accomplish what we couldn’t do more than a decade ago. Meta, in the US, has begun testing new ways to verify age, including Face-Based-Age-Prediction (FBAP) technology that can anonymously determine a person’s estimated age, along with social vouching.
Like most social media services, Instagram requires users to be 13 years of age or older and offers some features and content only available to those over 18 years old, along with default settings that vary depending on the user’s age.
Why it is important to know age
In addition to knowing whether a user is 13 years of age or older and therefore eligible for an Instagram account, the company also needs to know whether a user is under the age of 18 or between 13 and 16 years of age so that they can take advantage of age-appropriate privacy policies. and security settings. and are shielded from content and features that may be inappropriate for younger users.
For example, if the service knows that a teen is under 16, it will default to a private account. Users under the age of 18 are protected from unwanted contact by making it more difficult for potentially suspicious accounts to find them. Instagram is also possible notify teens when an adult exhibits possible suspicious behavior is interacting with them in direct messages† Instagram outdates branded content that is not appropriate for teens, including content about alcohol, subscription services, financial insurance products and services, cosmetic procedures, and weight loss. It too prohibits advertisers from targeting ads to people under the age of 18 based on interest and activity on other apps and websites, but does allow ads to be targeted based on age, gender, and location.
The security and privacy features specifically for teens are only available if the service knows their ages, but until now the main way to determine a user’s age has been to ask them to enter their date of birth when signing up. Instagram has long investigated reports of people being underage, but there are plenty of kids entering the wrong birthday, claiming to be 13 or older to access the service, or claiming to be over 18 to access the service. adult only features . Meta will investigate reports of minors and will also use artificial intelligence to detect whether a user is younger or older than 18 years. This AI looks at things like birthday greetings and other user-generated content.
Until now, if someone tries to change their age from under 18 to 18 or older, they must upload proof of identity such as a driver’s license, passport, school ID, library card, and social security card, among other options.
Face Based Age Prediction
The new options menu still includes ID verification, but not everyone can access an ID. Some may also prefer not to share it with Meta, so the company is adding two new options for determining a person’s estimated age: Face Based Age Prediction (FBAP) and social vouching.
FBAP is a technology developed and operated by Yoti, a British company that provides age verification technology to businesses around the world, including those that provide adult products or services such as alcohol, online gambling or adult content.
Social suretyship is where one or more persons (who must be adults themselves) vouch for one’s age. When someone selects the social voucher option, they are given the option of verifying their age by asking people they are mutually related to vouch for their age, requiring them to select 3 vouchers from a list of 6 that provided by Instagram. A Meta spokesperson said: “We ensure the trustworthiness of vouchers by using integrity signals, for example by excluding accounts that have been registered very recently, accounts suspected of being fake, and limiting them to users who are 18 years of age or older. older. The user’s age is considered verified if all three answers match and the answer falls into the exact age range in which the user is trying to change their date of birth.”
The Yoti Face Estimation technology is especially interesting in terms of technology, effectiveness and simplicity. As Yoti explains on its website: “Users simply look at the camera on a device and have their photo taken. Our algorithm instantly estimates their age based on their face.”
Yoti Age Estimator is certified for use by government agencies in the United Kingdom and Germany for purposes such as access to adult content, gambling and alcohol.
Accuracy and inclusivity
There are minor accuracy variations by gender. Currently, they report only female and male genders (they say they are working on ways to improve the age estimate for transgender people) and skin tones, but overall, according to a May 2022 Yoti white paperthe system will determine the age within:
- 1.36 years for children between 6 and 13
- 1.56 years for teens 13-17
- 2.22 years for young adults between 18 and 24
The system is less accurate (3.47%) at estimating the age of adults over 26, but Meta and most other companies don’t need to know the precise age of someone who is clearly an adult.
Yoti further states that: biases about gender and skin color are minimized and that the true positive rate (TPR) for 13 to 17 year olds correctly estimated as younger than 23 is 99.65%, while 6 to 11 year olds are correctly estimated as younger then 13 is 98.91%.
Yoti estimates only age – not identity. Meta says it will only share the user’s selfie with Yoti and that both Yoti and Instagram will delete the image once the age estimation is complete. Yoti says it only shares age with Meta or any other client company and that “the photo will not be viewed by Yoti staff.” The company only determines the approximate age and says the image will not be used to identify the person. The Future of Privacy Forum has a infographic together with a blog post which outlines a set of principles related to the use of face detection.
In an interview, Yoti’s Chief Policy & Regulatory Officer, Julie Dawson, said it “can’t recognize anyone and we have it checked annually” and said their auditor confirms that they “remove the image every time”.
No miracle cure
Even with age verification, it’s still important for parents to help their teens make decisions about what’s right for them, which varies on many factors, including maturity, well-being, and individual family values. Conversations with your children and teens (not lectures or inquisitions) can help parents understand what services their children use and how to protect themselves and help everyone in the family learn the skills to thrive in today’s connected world.
Disclosure: Larry Magid is CEO of ConnectSafely, a nonprofit internet safety organization that receives funding from Meta (the parent company of Instagram) and other technology companies.
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