Alexandria Online

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Fraudulence and Authenticity on the Internet: What is Your Authentication Process?

In my last post, I wrote about a YouTube video that had been forwarded to me by an acquaintance. When did I decide that I could trust the content of that video?

The video was about disability services for students and had been sent to me by someone who researches and has a disability. It seemed unbiased, sincere and well-produced. Nothing was being sold and there did not seem to be any agenda aside from the obvious advocacy it was doing for improving access to adaptive content for the blind.

Fraud, like other crimes, requires a motive. I could not sense any motivation for posting a fraudulent video like this. Maybe if it asked for online donations, I would have worried a little. But it doesn't.

I wanted to find out who had made it. On YouTube, there was just the screen name, MollyS. No profile or other identification. Fortunately YouTube has a messaging feature that allows you to contact the creators of their videos anonymously.

I contacted MollyS and explained my interest in the video, making sure to identify myself by my full name, my blog, my website and the website of my institution. I felt that if I revealed myself, she would too. This is what she wrote back:

I am *******. I shot, edited and posted the video (with a little help from my partner.) The content is as accurate as it is real, as real as it is accurate to the best of my knowledge and ability to determine it as such.
I then searched for her and found her listed on the website of the University of ****** in the context of providing disability services to students. I have left out her name by request of the University, so now you the reader must trust me.
The process was a lot more involved than friending someone on facebook, but I now feel that this video is everything that Molly claims it is. The first time I watched it, it seemed very authentic, but I felt a strong need to follow up and make sure that I had done due diligence.

That was my authentication process in this particular case.

Each of us has multiple methods of authenticating what we see, read and hear on the Internet. It can be as subtle and instinctual as that feeling you get when you know someone is lying to you. A lot of valuable services and information are being passed back and forth on the Internet securely by honest strangers. On the other hand, a lot of people get fooled, ripped off, robbed of their financial identity, infected by viruses and spyware or have their computers made into zombies by cyber-criminals and even terrorists.

My colleague in the Classics Department at Episcopal, Greta Ham, gave a wonderful lecture on Greek pots using images that she had collected on the Internet. I asked her how she could vouch for their authenticity, and she said, "I've seen them in real life so I know what they look like." Because she is an authority herself, she can vouch for the authenicity of the images. She has a Ph.D. in Classics from a fine institution. (See my post about the Ph.D.) I know and trust her, and I would put money down on those pictures.

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