Updated 4:32 pm, ET, Thursday, Feb. 16
Facebook on Thursday began asking certain popular users to upload photos of their government issued identification cards to help the social network test a new accounts verification service, the social network confirmed to TPM.
“The new process enables people to verify their identities by submitting a government issued ID,” a Facebook spokesperson said.
Facebook also revealed to TechCrunch, which first broke the news of the new verification process on Wednesday night, that it will “permanently delete” the ID information after the account holder has been verified.
Facebook did not elaborate on how exactly it will go about verifying the IDs or the accounts supposedly attached to them.
Twitter and Google Plus, which also offer account verification services for selected users and have done so for months (years in the case of Twitter), are similarly opaque about how those verification processes work.
For instance, Robert Scoble, a prominent technology blogger and Google Plus user, said that he was verified randomly by Google, but that the company didn’t contact him about it or check his ID.
Twitter suffered a similarly embarrassing faux-pas with its three-year-old accounts’ verification service in early January, when it mistakenly verified a parody account as that of the real Wendi Deng, wife of News Corp. mogul Rupert Murdoch. The parody account holder repeatedly said that he was never contacted by Twitter and that a “Verified” badge simply appeared on his account.
Facebook is at least more upfront about what it is looking for in order to verify users.
According to screenshots obtained by TechCrunch, Facebook will accept a “passport, driver’s license, work/military ID” or two “alternate IDs” including a “school or work ID, library card, birth certificate, credit card, or social security card.”
Facebook has said that, for now at least, the verification process and request to show ID is only being tested on a few popular users who have turned on the social network’s new “Subscribe” feature.
Facebook hasn’t said precisely which users it’s tapping to participate in the new verification process, but TechCrunch cited Lady Gaga as an example.
The “Subscribe” feature, launched on September 14, 2011, works like this: Users can visit Facebook’s “Subscribe” page and click “Allow subscribes.” That activates a new “Subscribe” button in top corner of the user’s Facebook page. Any other user can click this button to be “subscribed” to the see all of the first user’s public updates, even if the subscriber isn’t friends with the user who activated the feature.
Previously, Facebook only displayed the updates of users who had agreed to be “Friends” with each other. Tech bloggers pointed out that the “Subscribe” feature, in enabling “one-way” following, was adding a Twitter-like quality to Facebook. Since Twitter launched, the only means of seeing any other user’s updates was to “follow” them, but there was no obligation to follow back, as was in the case of the mutual Facebook “Friending.”
However, Facebook attempted to spin its new verification process as an expansion of its “Subscribe” feature, calling it a “minor update to our Subscribe feature.”
“This update makes it even easier for subscribers to find and keep up with journalists, celebrities and other public figures they want to connect to,” Facebook said in its statement to TPM, although it is unclear exactly how verifying accounts will do this, unless Facebook posts a “Verified” badge or other mark on their accounts, a la Twitter and Google Plus.
But Facebook has not given any indication it intends to do this, raising the question of what good “verifying” an account will do for subscribers
In an added layer of complexity, Facebook also told TPM that verified users will be allowed to change the names displayed on their Facebook pages to pseudonyms, confirming TechCrunch’s earlier reporting.
As Facebook told TPM in a statement: “Once verified, [users will] also have the option to more prominently display an alternate name (nickname, maiden name, byline, etc.) on their timelines in addition to their real name.”
Again, this move follows a similar move by Google on January 23 to allow people to sign up with psuedonyms on its Google Plus social network. For seven months after it launched in July 2011, Google Plus enforced a rigid “common names” or “real names” only policy, enraging some users. Twitter has since its launch in 2006 offered users the ability to create accounts under psuedonyms, which is why Twitter has turned into one of the preferred communications platforms of the Anonymous hackers.
However, there are many more outstanding questions remaining over how Facebook will store, secure, process and delete the information of users who submit their IDs in order to be verified. As one commentator noted on TechCrunch’s post on the new system:
“I don’t know how I feel about Facebook asking me to upload a copy of my government issued ID, especially the part about “we’ll permanently delete your documents. When have they ever permanently deleted anything?”
To that point: Facebook was in late 2011 audited by the Irish government over an Austrian student’s complaints that Facebook did not delete enormous amounts of his data even after he clicked “delete” on his account. The student obtained 1,200 pages worth of his personal data from Facebook by request, including wall posts, photos, messages comments and other data he thought had been deleted. The Irish government did not find Facebook in violation of its laws and Facebook escaped a fine, but it agreed to make changes to its policies in the European Union to allow users more granular control over deleting content.
Late updates: A reader pointed out to TPM that it is illegal to copy a military or Department of Defense-issued identification card in most cases (except for health insurance purposes), punishable by fines or imprisonment.
Meanwhile, it’s also worth pointing out that Facebook has requested copies of government-issued IDs in the past for users who have had their accounts automatically deactivated under suspicion that they were fraudulent or spammers. Facebook in late 2010 admitted that a bug caused some accounts to be deemed likely fakes when in fact they were real.
Google also requests a copy of a government-issued ID for users attempting to reactivate Google Accounts that the company has suspended.