Your Secret Is Out: Online Anonymity Is Disappearing

Companies are working to link your real world information to online IDs.

Oct. 3, 2007 Special to — -- Second Life is a place where you go to live out fantasies. The virtual world lets you pick your body shape, eye color, age and gender. But now Second Life wants to know the real you.

In August, it began testing technology that verifies people's identity and age. "Trust is the foundation of any community," blogged marketing chief Robin Harper. "And one cornerstone of trust is identity. You've got to know something about the person you are dealing with before you can trust them."

This marks a big shift in the world of Web communities, where people often share excruciatingly intimate details about their lives even as they neglect to say — or outright lie — about who they really are. Will denizens of the Web soon have to reveal their real world selves?

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"There will be a Web equivalent of 'No shoes, No shirt, No service'," says author and tech futurist Paul Saffo. In other words, if you want to join the club, show your card.

Second Life is tapping technology called Integrity, from Washington D.C.-based Aristotle International. Soon only those Second Lifers willing to divulge their social security numbers (or passport data) will get access to content that other members have flagged as "adult."

Second Life isn't enforcing online ID — just giving members the option. If you run a bar in the virtual world with scantily clad dancers, you can chose to let anyone in, or only those who have proven their age — much like the real world. Of the hundreds of Second Lifers who have weighed in on the proposals, a few have welcomed such virtual velvet ropes: "About bloody time!" wrote one. Far more Second Lifers, however, are worried about losing their privacy.

As more people wander into cyberspace, however, the norms of the "real" world may get imposed on the virtual one. Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, for instance, is pressuring social networking sites including MySpace, owned by News Corp., to verify age. "If we can put a man on the moon, we should be able to verify ages online," says Blumenthal. Attorneys general in all states are joining his campaign.

Some of the smartest minds in tech believe more identity online is inevitable — and a hulking business opportunity. "We used to protect your PC; now we want to protect you," says Enrique Salem, who heads Symantec's consumer business. Both Symantec and Microsoft are figuring out ways to pull real world data — such as a driver's license, credit report, mailing address — and link it to online personae.

The big pitch to consumers: fraud protection. But there are lots of other scenarios where proof of identity could be useful. "We're not talking about this being a whole version of your identity, but a slice of it when appropriate," says Microsoft's identity chief Kim Cameron. He likens it to a wallet full of cards with different uses. One might be for big purchases where customers want to prove they aren't fraudsters posing as them with their credit card numbers. Another use might be limited to age verification: If a 20-something on a dating site wants proof that you're not a 50-something posing as a 30-something, you could share only that data. Tech firms intend these services to be voluntary for individuals and the Web sites they visit.

Entrepreneur Dick Hardt believes password bloat will drive the adoption of new identity-aware technology. "Your experience in the Web should be like the one in the physical world. Whoever sees my driver's license trusts it and doesn't have to talk to the guy who issued my license," says Hardt. His Vancouver, British Columbia, start-up, called Sxip, is part of a consortium of firms adhering to OpenID, a set of standards for giving and understanding identity on the Web.

But unless the measures are no more complex than a few mouse clicks, people may opt out of proving who they are online. Software entrepreneur Austin Hill started a service in the late 1990s that provided identity cards for Web denizens. The product floundered.

"People want to feel safe online but they don't want to manage fancy technology," Hill says. "You give them a Swiss Army knife; they want a butter knife. But that's a very blunt instrument."