UK porn watchers could have faces scanned

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https://www.febspot.com/2191620
  • By Chris Vallance
  • Technology reporter, BBC News

https://www.febspot.com/2191620

https://www.febspot.com/2191620

Image source, Getty Images

Porn users could have their faces scanned to prove their age, with extra checks for young-looking adults, draft guidance from Ofcom suggests.

https://www.febspot.com/2191620

The watchdog has set out a number of ways explicit sites could prevent children from viewing pornography.

The average age children first view pornography is 13, a survey suggests.

Explicit website Pornhub said regulations requiring the collection of “highly sensitive personal information” could jeopardise user safety.

Privacy campaigners have also criticised the proposals warning of “catastrophic” consequences if data from age checks is leaked.

A large chunk of the UK population watch online pornography – nearly 14 million people, according to a recent report by Ofcom, with one in five of those watch it during office hours.

But the ease of access to online pornography has also raised concerns that children are viewing explicit websites – with one in ten children seeing it by age nine, according to a survey by the Children’s Commissioner.

The Online Safety Act, which recently became law, requires social media platforms and search engines to protect children from harmful content online.

It will be enforced by Ofcom, who can issue large fines if firms fail to comply.

Ofcom has outlined how it expects firms to comply with the new regulations when come into force sometime in 2025, saying age checks must be “highly effective at correctly determining whether or not a particular user is a child”.

Age checks will have to go well beyond simply clicking a button to self-declare you are an adult.

Acceptable methods could include:

  • requiring government photographic ID such as a passport
  • checking if the user has previously had age restrictions removed from a mobile phone
  • credit card checks
  • digital ID wallets that store a user’s proof of age which can be shared with the site.

Facial age-estimation tech, that will scan users’ faces and use software to infer if they are an adult, is also an option.

The regulator suggests that if the tech isn’t accurate enough on its own, websites could consider asking for additional checks if a person looks under a “challenge” age. That corresponds to the way many retailers work, asking for ID when selling alcohol to someone who looks under-25.

‘Liveness’ checks

It is unlikely that any age assurance method will be impossible to circumvent, Ofcom notes, but websites must guard against simple tricks.

For systems that compare a photo ID such as a passport with a user’s face, for example, they should do a “liveness check” to guard against children who try to use borrowed or fake ID and a photo of someone older to fool the system.

Image source, BBC/Jack Liepa

Image caption,

Sexpression’s National Director Jack Liepa. The charity delivers sex education workshops in schools

Young adults involved in sex education told the BBC they believed having these kinds of protections in place would help prevent children being exposed to pornography.

Jack Liepa, director of the charity Sexpression, which sends university students into schools to run workshops about sex and relationships, said the Online Safety Act was a positive step, but not a complete solution.

“Young people probably still will find ways to access this content: older siblings might provide access, and they’re still going to turn 18 and suddenly have access, at still quite a young impressionable age.

“So I don’t think we can take the act and suddenly think this issue is solved,” Mr Liepa said.

Others worry that some young people will visit riskier, unregulated sites to access pornography if they are blocked from accessing mainstream sites.

Blackmail fear

The biggest concern among porn-using adults about proving their age, is over the safety of their data, Ofcom says.

The draft guidance says sites must follow the data protection rules set out by privacy watchdog the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO).

Aylo, the owners of Pornhub, says it backs the principle of age verification but has also voiced concerns about user safety and privacy.

“Any regulations that require hundreds of thousands of adult sites to collect significant amounts of highly sensitive personal information is putting user safety in jeopardy”, it said.

Pornhub is the 14th most visited website in the world, according to statistics from Similarweb, but faced serious allegations in 2020 relating to illegal content on the platform.

When the US state of Louisiana instituted age verification, Aylo said Pornhub traffic dropped approximately 80 percent.

But it said rather than stopping viewing porn altogether, users went instead to “darker corners of the internet that don’t ask users to verify age, that don’t follow the law, that don’t take user safety seriously, and that often don’t even moderate content.”

The company said in its view age-verification should take place “on the device” – in other words parental controls on phones and computers that stop children from accessing pornography.

Abigail Burke of campaigning organisation, the Open Rights Group said there was not enough emphasis on keeping data safe.

“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,” she said.

“Specific and clear privacy rules are needed, given the vast amount of sensitive data that will potentially be processed,” she told the BBC.

Draft codes of practice to cover pornography on social media platforms will be published in 2024.

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510 thoughts on “UK porn watchers could have faces scanned

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