The apartment and house sharing service, Airbnb, now requires members to verify their identities by demonstrating a presence on the web, and by either scanning a government ID or entering detailed personal details. Other enterprises should take a close look at Airbnb's verification policies.
Airbnb has good reasons for these more stringent verification procedures. The service, which started in the United States and now is available in numerous countries around the world, enables members, called hosts, to rent their accommodations -- apartments, houses, cottages, villas -- by the day, week, or month to guests. Sometimes the host rents just a couch in the living room, with the host sleeping in the bedroom. Sometimes the rental is a spare bedroom or an entire unoccupied apartment or house.
Now, Airbnb wants to ensure guests can't hide behind false identities. Guests have a few ways to verify their IDs. One way is to use their computer's webcam or Airbnb's mobile application to scan a photograph of their US passport, driver's license, or state ID card.
If members don't want to go that route, they may instead complete a questionnaire that requires such information as their birthdate, the last four numbers of their social security number, and confirmation of two previous home addresses.
In addition to completing one of those two requirements, members also must include either a link to their active Facebook or LinkedIn account or three positive reviews from previous stays at an Airbnb accommodation. Airbnb allows guests to write reviews of their stays and hosts to write reviews of guests.
Airbnb is randomly requiring 25 percent of its US members to complete this "Verified ID" process, but members who haven't been selected may voluntarily opt into the process. A "verified" badge is attached to everyone's profile. Eventually, all US members and non-US members will have to become verified.
Hosts don't have to require guests become verified before renting to them, but if they do, the hosts also must go through a verification process.
Airbnb might lose some revenue from members who want to become verified, but the process seems like a good idea. After all, anyone leasing accommodations, even if it's specifically a rental property, probably wants assurance that it won't be damaged, especially by someone using a false identity.
A larger issue is whether other companies in other industries should require similar safeguards. For example, RelayRides, which allows car owners to rent their vehicles to strangers, requires prospective renters to enter their driver's license data, then checks state motor vehicle records for previous major and minor violations. Renters also must have a cellular phone in their name as well as a credit or debit card.
Airlines already require passengers to show an official government ID at the airport, so what about Airbnb-type verifications when purchasing tickets online? Amtrak typically checks passenger IDs at stations and the Transportation Security Administration can conduct random checks. Perhaps railroads and long distance bus lines should require more stringent identification for online purchases.
What about websites for products restricted by age? To access the websites of alcohol vendors Budweiser and Seagram's, I simply entered a false birthdate. But cigarette-maker Marlboro demanded my name, address, and the last four digits of my social security number. None of these businesses sell their goods from these sites.
Requiring more documentation could rile privacy advocates who are concerned -- rightfully so -- about users' decreasing ability to veil themselves in anonymity on occasion. Also, there's no guarantee that personal data wouldn't be stolen from corporate servers, as Living Social's recent data breach highlights.
Still, with more web ventures built around sharing goods and services, and the simultaneous rise in criminal activities, it just might be time for some websites to step up their requirements for proof of identity.
A New York judge ruled recently that people who use Airbnb in New York City are breaking the law. Apparently, it's an occupancy code issue -- although renters are only likely to face legal proceedings if a complaint is filed against them, NPR reported. That shows the hazards of being a national (international?) company that deals with residential issues, especially when you're coming into an area like NYC that has so many rules regarding rentals.
Usman - But the 9/11 attackers, the Boston Marathon bombers, as well as Theodore Kaczynski, the shoe-bomber, the Oklahoma City bomber, and other terrorists were all legally where they were permitted to be. Better IDs would not have solved the problem, because all of these people had legal IDs. Better IDs solve the problem of forged IDs, not this problem.
I don't know any way to solve this problem without an unacceptable restriction on civil liberties.
To use your metaphor: The best locks in the world won't protect you if your attacker has authorized, legal, and proper possession of the key.
Mitch- I dont know if you have seen Burn Notice, a fact from an episode, "The insterior locks in an office suite are usually low end, just there to keep white collar workers from stealing coffee cups".
These ID's are certailnly not for 9/11 attackers or Boston bombers.
As Alan pointed out, it was easy for him to circumvent the "age restrictions" on some alcohol sites by simply typing in a fake birth date. You can't buy Bud or Seagrams from those sites; they're simply marketing/advertising/promotional sites -- and certainly kids see TV, magazine, and billboard ads for these products all over the place. Marlboro uses its site for direct marketing, coupons, and contests. You can't see cigarette ads on TV, although they do advertise on billboards and in print. Perhaps for those reasons, Marlboro uses age-verification for its site. I wonder what other businesses that solely target adults do to prevent kids from viewing their products and how that differs, depending on whether they are selling vs. showing their wares.
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