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Opinion: Social Media Age Verification Puts User Data at Risk

Age verification laws create myriad privacy risks, and requiring platforms to collect government IDs or face scans opens the door to potential exploitation by hackers and enemy governments.

Social Media
(TNS) — The Show-Me State will not require you to show your ID to use social media — for now.

The Missouri General Assembly recently considered and rejected a bill that would have barred anyone under the age of 18 from creating a social media account without parental consent. To comply with the proposed law, social media companies would have needed to create an age verification system, likely requiring users to upload a picture of their photo ID which would then be compared to a selfie. Thankfully, Missouri lawmakers realized the problems that age verification laws pose and decided to scrap the bill. But legislators in other states are still crafting (and some cases have already passed) similar laws.

Missouri’s legislature got it right: As bad as social media can be for kids, it’s not the government’s responsibility to regulate what they read and post online. It’s their parents’ responsibility.

Take Oklahoma’s House Bill 3914, for example. This bill would bar anyone under the age of 16 from creating a social media account, even if their parents consent. The Oklahoma bill would sidestep parents completely, not even allowing them to choose if, when, and how their children use social media. As an additional smack in the face, parents who use social media themselves would be forced to put their own data and identity at risk in order to comply with the law.

It’s easy to understand why so many legislators are eager to pass age verification laws. Social media can have detrimental effects on children, exposing them to cyberbullying and dulling their already short attention spans. As parents and guardians, it’s natural to want to shield our children from these dangers.

I myself am a parent of two young children. They will grow up in a world where social media is pervasive and dominant. It will be difficult at times for them to navigate life without using social media, so my wife and I will have to make tough decisions about how much, if any, social media our children should be permitted to access.

But there are many ways to do this: We could refuse to buy smartphones for them. Or we could purchase any of the various software packages that block social media and obscene content from their devices. Or we could allow them to use social media, but limit their screen time. Or we could educate them about the issues that social media causes and simply trust them to make good choices. All of these options would have been denied to us if we lived in a state that passed a strict age verification law.

Not only do age verification laws reduce parental freedom, but they also create myriad privacy risks. Requiring platforms to collect government IDs and face scans opens the door to potential exploitation by hackers and enemy governments. The very information intended to protect children could end up in the wrong hands, compromising the privacy and security of millions of users.

I recently spoke to Paul Taske, a litigator at NetChoice, a 501(c)(6) nonprofit advocacy group currently fighting various age verification laws in court. “We see data breaches all over the place,” he told me. “Credit card companies, ancestry trackers and even government agencies have had their data stolen. … Age-verification requirements for social media companies increase the risk that users will be targeted by hackers because their data is valuable. And where data is required to be stored by law, those places become prime targets for the next attack.”

Taske’s warnings are not idle speculations. Hackers steal data online all the time, even stealing children’s identities. In 2021 alone, nearly 1 million American children had their identities stolen, costing an average of $1,100 per household. Forcing people to upload more personal data would only put them more at risk.

Ultimately, age verification laws are a misguided attempt to address the complex issue of underage social media use. Instead of placing undue burdens on users and limiting parental liberty, lawmakers should look for alternative strategies that respect privacy rights while promoting online safety. In fact, there are some concrete steps that governments can take to help protect children from virtual threats, such as providing additional resources to law enforcement agencies to go after online predators and implementing digital literacy education in public schools.

But they should leave the parenting to the parents.

© 2024 The Charlotte Observer. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.