Guess your age game —

Unproven AI face scans may estimate age for porn access in UK

UK expects to finalize its latest plan to age-gate the Internet in early 2025.

Unproven AI face scans may estimate age for porn access in UK
Aurich Lawson | Getty Images

AI face detection now counts among the tools that could be used to help adult sites effectively estimate UK user ages and block minors from accessing pornography, the UK's Office of Communications (Ofcom) said in a press release on Tuesday.

The only foreseeable problem, Ofcom noted: There's little evidence that the AI method of age estimation will be fair, reliable, or effective.

The UK's legal age to watch porn is 18. To enforce that restriction, under the Online Safety Act, Ofcom will soon require all apps and sites displaying adult content to introduce so-called "age assurance" systems that verify and/or estimate user ages. Sites and apps risk potential fines if they fail to "ensure that children are not normally able to encounter pornography on their service."

Ofcom's goal was to release draft guidance setting a higher bar for age assurance ahead of final guidance expected to be released in "early 2025." The regulator's press release said that under the proposed guidance, "weaker age-checks," like "self-declaration of age," online payment methods accessible to minors, and "general terms, disclaimers or warnings" would no longer suffice for adult sites to avoid penalties.

Only technology that Ofcom "currently" considers "highly effective" will be allowed now. That includes five relatively commonly used age checks, like requiring users to share a photo ID, banking information, credit card information, digital ID wallets, or mobile network operator age verification. But it also includes a less common and untested option, "facial age estimation," which Ofcom describes as analyzing "the features of a user’s face" to "estimate their age."

Seemingly, this option would require users to take a selfie to access adult content. In a footnote, Ofcom wrote that rather than verifying a user's identity with the face scan, the facial age estimation could instead verify whether a user meets a "challenge age," such as 25. If the face scan suggests the user is under 25, "that user would undergo a second age-check via an alternative method" approved by Ofcom.

The footnote also clarified a rather significant setback with this suggested age-check method. While Ofcom is "aware that a wide range of age estimation methods exist," Ofcom said that it does "not have evidence to suggest that other methods of age estimation are currently capable of being highly effective, are sufficiently mature technologies, or are being deployed at scale."

Because of this, Ofcom has "only proposed including facial age estimation" among "highly effective" age-check methods. This guidance could change if Ofcom later decides that this form of age-estimation is ineffective, the regulator wrote in the footnote.

However, even if there was evidence of "technically accurate, robust, reliable, and fair" facial age estimation available today, it's unclear how popular this particular age-check method would be.

One of the "biggest concerns" for 42 percent of UK adults worried about how new restrictions will impact legal porn access is that sites will require "sharing personal information," Ofcom reported. Facial recognition data is considered among the most sensitive types of personal information because face data cannot be easily changed following a data breach.

Ofcom will continue updating the age assurance guidance over the next year, consulting with stakeholders before a 2025 deadline. But Ofcom CEO Melanie Dawes has made it clear that stricter methods of age checking will soon be required. At the same time, adult sites and apps must also figure out how to protect the privacy of adult users who may be deterred from engaging with legal content if prompted to take a selfie or share a photo ID first.

"Regardless of their approach, we expect all services to offer robust protection to children from stumbling across pornography, and also to take care that privacy rights and freedoms for adults to access legal content are safeguarded," Dawes said.

A program manager for the UK digital rights organization Open Rights Group, Abigail Burke, told The Verge that Ofcom still needs to clarify age-check standards around protecting user data.

"Age verification technologies for pornography risk sensitive personal data being breached, collected, shared, or sold," Burke told The Verge. "The potential consequences of data being leaked are catastrophic and could include blackmail, fraud, relationship damage, and the outing of people’s sexual preferences in very vulnerable circumstances."

Channel Ars Technica