Watchdog mulls online facial age-verification tech – for kids' parents

COPPA load of this

Technology that estimates how old someone is based on their face geometry may soon be used to verify internet users' ages, if an approach submitted to the US government gets the green light.

While adults and teenagers' information is largely fair game, America does have significant privacy protections for the under-13s thanks to the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). Now the entertainment industry would like an exception to these strict rules to allow facial scanning for automated age verification purposes, albeit with a twist: the age verification will be used on the parents.

The US Federal Trade Commission is considering an application [PDF] from the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB), digital identity firm Yoti (which makes the facial age estimation tech), and its partner SuperAwesome (which teams with advertisers to help them target kids online), to allow such technology to be used. 

The three organizations have asked the FTC to approve the use of Yoti's age-estimating tool under COPPA's tough rules.

The law requires websites and apps to direct kids under the age of 13 to obtain their parents' permission before collecting or using the youngsters' personal info. There are a number of ways sites and services can go about obtaining parental permission to siphon kids' data – and the law allows interested parties to propose new consent methods to the FTC for consideration.

Which brings us to the age-guessing tech. According to Yoti, it uses a "combination of AI technology, liveness anti-spoofing and document authenticity checks" to determine a netizen's age. 

Here's how the organizations say the Yoti tech would enable parental consent under COPPA:

  1. First, a child visits a website and hits an age gate. The operator then asks the kid for their parent's email, sends a note to the parent letting them know that they need to verify that they're an adult for the child to proceed, and offers the facial-age scanning estimation as a possible verification method.
  2. (Yes, let's assume for a moment that the kid doesn't do what every 10-year-old online does and lie about their age, or let's assume the website or app has a way of recognizing it's dealing with a kid, such as asking for some kind of ID.)
  3. If the parent consents to having their face scanned, their system then takes a selfie and the software provides an age estimate. 
  4. If the age guesstimate indicates the parent is an adult, the kid can then proceed to the website. But if it determines they are not an adult, a couple of things happen.
  5. If "there is some other uncertainty about whether the person is an adult" then the person can choose an alternative verification method, such as a credit card, driver's license, or social security number. 
  6. But if the method flat out decides they are not an adult, it's a no go for access. We're also going to assume here that the adult is actually the parent or legal guardian.

According to the application, Yoti and SuperAwesome have implemented the so-called "Privacy-Protective Facial Age Estimation" technology for legally required parental consent in places outside of the US since 2022. 

During that time, the partners say they have provided more than 4.8 million of these types of age estimates, and they claim that this method can accurately determine if someone is an adult 99.97 percent of the time. Now they'd like to bring it to the Land of the Free.

But … it's privacy protective!

That "Privacy-Protective" part of the name is intentional. The partners claim that the tech addresses privacy concerns because it doesn't collect or process identity or payment card information nor store user images.

"The system takes a facial image, converts it into numbers, and compares those numbers to patterns in its training dataset that are associated with known ages," according to the FTC application. It adds:

In Yoti's case, the company trains its neural network model by feeding it millions of images of diverse human faces with their actual month and year of birth. The system converts the pixels of these images into mathematical functions that represent patterns. Over time, the system has learned to correlate those patterns with the known age.

When asked about privacy concerns related to the face-scanning tech, an ESRB spokeserson told us: "The live scans used for this process are never stored, used for AI training, used for marketing, or even sent to the operator; the only piece of information that is communicated to the operator is a 'Yes' or 'No' determination as to whether the person is over the age of 25."

SuperAwesome's Kids Web Services uses the tech in its parental consent tool as a verification method that it sells to developers outside America, and Fortnite maker Epic Games is one of these customers.

Yes, this is the same Epic Games that, last year, paid the FTC a record $520 million for violating COPPA – so it just might have not been the best customer to highlight in the application. ®

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