The Trouble With Digital Age Verification

Anna R.
November 1, 2023

Age verification has been around for decades, but what happens when it goes digital?  

Age verification has been around for decades, but what happens when it goes digital? Like many other millennials, I grew up with unregulated internet and social media access. I spent hours in chat rooms, stumbled into the most vile YouTube comment sections, became an amateur coder on Myspace, and, of course, watched the dreaded "Two Girls, One Cup." I was a social media-obsessed teen; I needed to be on every site: Myspace, Vampire Freaks, Xanga, MyYearbook, HotorNot, and eventually Instagram and Tumblr in later years.

Embarrassingly and perhaps problematically, I did all this as an underage teen masquerading as someone much older. Age verification wasn't the concept it is today, and while I got into a lot of trouble, I'm thankful for its lack of existence. But what the fuck is age verification, and why should you care as a (perhaps childless) adult, especially regarding social media? TLDR: Anonymity, data, and the protection + privacy of those are essential.

Age verification is quickly moving past the idea of simply entering your birthdate, relying on the honor system, and moving towards more invasive methods. The concept of age verification is vast and can vary by platform or company. Some places handle this themselves, but most often, age verification is contracted out to a third-party company specializing in digital age verification.

These companies then validate your identity and age by using a credit card or government-issued ID. In more extreme cases, your biometric data is being captured and analyzed to estimate your age. This method requires someone to take a real-time picture and use AI and other metrics to guess your age. While this is a more extreme measure many companies have not moved towards yet, more companies are moving towards racial recognition as a viable option. The Australian government, in particular, has begun using facial recognition to track its residents, most notably during COVID-19. 

Companies like Persona, AllPassTrust, and Veriff have sprouted up and seek to support companies in streamlining their age verification endeavors. Veriff, which received $192.3 million in over several rounds of funding, is promising to "increase conversions with a selfie-based age check." "Veriff's Age Estimation solution uses facial biometric analysis to estimate a user's age without requiring the user to provide an identity document. This low-friction solution will enable you to convert more users faster." 

Things start to get complicated when it comes to what happens after a user verifies their age, whether it be with a selfie or by uploading a government ID. Sometimes, what happens with your data is intentionally unclear after it is used. Furthermore, it's unclear who has access to that data and what else it could potentially be used for. It is not unimaginable that this data could be sold or breached. All this could be done without the individual even knowing. There is very little government regulation around age verification, biometric data protections, and even less accountability for big tech companies to protect your data.

In the case of social media, there have been several proposals of how to handle minors' access. Several national and state bills have popped up recently that propose heavily moderated children's access to social media and the internet. The most notable of these bills are the Protecting Kids on Social Media Act and the Kids Online Saftey Act (KOSA). However, both bills feature intentionally vague language regarding accountability and legality, which could allow individual states to interpret the law in their own ways. KOSA has specifically dangerous ramifications; it's coauthor, Senator Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), is actively trying to get critical race theory removed from schools. Both bills have little language around how to actively protect children online. However, it has made many lawmakers begin discussing age verification.

It is quite difficult for children or teens to conceptualize the value of their data fully, and to be fair, I don't think most adults can either. How is it ethical for a child to surrender all their biometric data, possibly risking data breaches or exploitation, in exchange for watching cat videos on YouTube? It is quite possible that with age verification, those who refuse to verify will face restrictions, which only raises more ethical questions about the concept of access

Additionally, age verification is a form of facial recognition that has periodically been known to yield incorrect results, most notably in the case of Nijeer Parks. A facial recognition system incorrectly identified Parks, and he was then falsely arrested and imprisoned for ten days. 


Sex workers often have to undergo age verification processes to distribute erotic content or porn. While age verification, in this case, is necessary to protect both performers and hosting sites from legal issues, the entire process can be stressful and confusing. When I was uploading my data to a third-party service, it was unclear what was happening with my data after. Would it be destroyed, or would it be saved for years to come? How can I trust this company to protect my privacy and be sure there wouldn't be data breaches on their end, potentially leaking my legal name? It's a fear that I still hold, but writing about sex work under your legal name kinda makes you get over it. However, I still imagine this is a fear many other sex workers hold.

While age verification is necessary in some cases, like the creation of porn, other circumstances call for more dialogue and nuance. I don't think it's right for certain websites only to be accessible if you verify your data, by biometrics or otherwise. It's an invasion of privacy and anonymity. People, especially children, should not have to exchange their anonymity for access. With so few protections, how is it ethical to trust third companies or big tech companies with our information?

The only regulations we see are censorship bills cleverly disguised as child protection. While bills like KOSA (Kids Online Safety Act) seem to protect children from the "harms" of social media, the bill does little to hold companies accountable other than preventing more adult content from the site. While the bill and its proponents make little mention of age verification, it's not unrealistic to think it's the next course of action. But in the case of social media, I don't think age verification is the solution to hands-off parenting and conservative extremism.

Sources & Additional Readings: 

Age Verification Mandates Would Undermine Anonymity Online

The nation where your 'faceprint' is already being tracked

Online age verification is coming, and privacy is on the chopping block