UK Government could use facial recognition to verify ages for porn sites

Biometric facial recognition on smartphone. Unlock smartphone as it scans his face.

Just when you thought the British government might finally have got it right on their ludicrous porn age verification laws, a junior minister has let slip what their true intentions might be, and it isn’t good.

Matthew Warman, a junior Minister at the Department for Culture, Media, and Sport, which was responsible for the botched plans was tasked with answering an Urgent Question on the scrapping of the plans in the House of Commons yesterday.

An Urgent Question is a Parliamentary mechanism which forces Government Ministers to give a statement on an issue to the Commons and then answer questions from MPs.  In the absence of the Secretary of State, it was Warman who found himself taking flak from MPs.

His oral statement echoed the written statement announcing the policy flip-flop which we reported on a couple of days ago. This is to be expected but the really interesting information was divulged during the Q&A section.

Porn age verification has cost £2.2 million so far

In response to questions from the Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, Tom Watson, Warman admitted that the government has wasted £2.2 million of taxpayers money on the failed scheme so far.

As with many government ministers, Warman seemed to be under the impression that this is a negligible amount of money and he disputed that it had been wasted arguing that the spend was on “a key part of the online harms agenda.”

“It is money invested in protecting our children, and we will continue to do that,” he confidently stated. This is hopelessly and willfully misleading.

The truth is that Warman has admitted that the government has spent £2.2 million of British taxpayers money on a scheme that has been abandoned, due to a combination of government incompetence and legislative folly.

Not a single child has been protected or prevented from viewing a single explicit image as a result of that money. If this isn’t a  definition of waste, I don’t know what is.

What will replace the failed Age Verification scheme?

But even more interesting than the revelations about how much taxpayers money has been flushed down the loo on this scheme so far were the insights into what might replace it.

In particular, his response to a question by Conservative MP Vicky Ford raised eyebrows.

Ford asked about the use of digital ID and took the opportunity to plug a company in her constituency which she claimed already offered these in 170 different countries.

In response, Warman agreed that the issue was a technical problem that required a technical solution. He touched on digital IDs and then raised a truly chilling and terrifying prospect.

“People have talked about whether facial recognition could be used to verify age, so long as there is an appropriate concern for privacy. All of these are things I hope we will be able to wrap up in the new approach, because they will deliver better results for consumers—child or adult alike.”

Yes, you read that right!

The government is considering replacing their hugely invasive and already failed plans with the use of facial recognition to gain access to online porn sites.

As if having to enter your credit card or passport details into a database in order to look at porn online wasn’t enough of a privacy risk, the government now wants to keep a scan of your face on there too.

The potential risks presented by such a move simply doesn’t bear thinking about. The announcement, dropped almost casually into an answer could be a mistake by the junior minister. But it could equally be an indication that the UK Government’s contempt for their citizen’s privacy remains undiminished.

The Online Harms Bill is crucial

Warman confirmed in his answers that new age verification policies which will succeed the failed scheme are likely to be included in the government’s forthcoming Online Harms Bill.

This Bill is still open for consultation and contains nothing of that sort at the moment. But the government has plenty of time to change that before and during the bill’s passage through Parliament.

Brexit is likely to hold that process up for a while longer, so online porn users can rest easy for the time being.

But Warman has confirmed that the concept of porn age verification has not gone away.

As we alluded in our news earlier in the week, it was always likely that this issue would be brought back again and the chances were it would be even worse than what has gone before.

If facial recognition is in the mix, then things could be a lot worse than even we had thought and the only reassurance we can find is that VPNs are likely to still offer a workaround.

No matter what draconian measures the UK Government decides to put in place, it was always going to be a domestic solution to an international issue.

As long as VPNs continue to offer international servers, UK internet users will always be able to circumvent any age verification schemes that might be put in place back home.

This is a crumb of comfort at a time when what seemed to be a good piece of news has turned sour remarkably quickly.

David Spencer

Author: David Spencer

David is VPNCompare's News Editor. Anything going on in the privacy world and he's got his eye on it. He's also interested in unblocking sports allowing him to watch his favourite football team wherever he is in the world.

Away from writing, he enjoys reading and politics. He is currently learning Mandarin too... slowly.

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