Saturday, July 13, 2024

Would face scanning technology keep Australian kids off social media? The UK regulator doubts it

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The face scanning technology used to verify people’s ages online is fallible on young teenagers, the boss of the UK’s online safety regulator has warned, throwing doubt on a key method Australia’s opposition believes can stop children from accessing social media.

Peter Dutton, the opposition leader, has said he would seek to force social media companies to ban children under 16 from their platforms in the first 100 days of coming into government, if the Coalition were elected.

While the Coalition has not set out the specific technology it would use to do this, the shadow communications minister, David Coleman, has previously pointed to the UK’s work on age assurance as an example.

In parliament in November, Coleman took aim at Labor, saying: “The government says the technology isn’t ready. Well, tell the UK that, because just four weeks ago the United Kingdom legislated for age verification technology.”

However, Dame Melanie Dawes, the CEO of the UK regulator Ofcom, told the BBC on Friday that while Britain was using such technologies for age verification for people 18 and older, it was not suitable for younger ages. Ofcom is responsible for implementing age assurance systems in the UK.

“We haven’t said we’re requiring age assurance at age 13,” she said. “This may change [but] one of the reasons for that is that actually these age assurance technologies which scan your face and estimate your age don’t work very well on children, because children can look so different at different ages, as I am sure we all know.

“Also kids often don’t have that hard ID backup that is appropriate when you’re running a system like that, so there are some constraints on that.”

The current consultation by Ofcom is focused on ensuring social media companies enforce their own rules around age appropriate content – such as ensuring no one under 13 is accessing the service, if that breaks company policy. .

The UK is not currently pursuing the same social media ban for under 16s that the Coalition has announced as policy, and its age verification is not limited to facial checks. UK policy allows other ID checks including verification from financial institutions or mobile phone providers to ensure users are over 18.

The Albanese government announced in May’s federal budget a $6.5m trial of age assurance technology, which the prime minister has said is needed in order to determine whether it can be effective.

On Tuesday the communications minister, Michelle Rowland, said the government had not landed on an exact restriction age for social media users in Australia, indicating that would be part of the trial.

“What we want to do is examine, firstly, the evidence. So, what does the evidence show? We know that there’s some [US] states and some jurisdictions around the age of 13, for example, that are the minimum uses for current platforms, but they’re not enforced. That is the key issue,” she told Sky News.

Rowland said the government was embarking on a “methodical” process to ensure it was not “policy on the run”. Guardian Australia has previously reported government advice suggests no country in the world has solved the problem of age verification.

Dawes’s comments were reportedly criticised by Yoti, the facial age assurance technology company used by Meta on Instagram and other companies such as OnlyFans. The company reportedly told the industry publication Biometric Update that its data on millions of images suggests the technology can be effective in determining whether children are over or under 13.

This month Instagram expanded the service to Australia to check the ages of users who had attempted to change their age from under 18 to over 18.

Yoti was approached for comment.

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