BY KLINT FINLEY
Someone just said something on the internet, and you know they’re wrong.
You know because you’re an expert on the subject this bozo is spewing nonsense about. But, at the same time, you don’t want to post a response under your own name. Maybe you have an opinion that would make you unpopular with your family or colleagues. Or maybe you have a stalker and don’t want to tip them off about the sites you use. Regardless of your reasons, you’re left with a choice: either you post anonymously, which means no one will know what your credentials are, or use your real name and risk the real-world consequences.
Dave Vronay, a former Apple and Microsoft researcher, and Ruben Kleiman, a former Apple and Netflix engineer, want to solve this problem. They want to give you a way to verify your credentials online without having to give up your anonymity. The pair recently founded a new company called Heard, which now offers a site where anyone can post articles on any topic they want, whether they use their real name or not. But Heard will also let you earn digital “badges” by proving certain things about yourself—like where you work, or where you went to school—so that you can post anonymously while still providing your credentials. Readers will can then make more informed decisions about which writers to trust.
In the ongoing debate over online anonymity, Heard could provide a welcome middle ground between sites like Facebook and the new wave of gossip apps like Secret. It might even change another hotbed of internet controversy: the comments on articles like this one.
The Anonymity Debate
Sites like Google and Facebook have come under fire for for the real names policies in recent years. Google finally relented and now officially allows users of its Google+ social network to use pseudonyms. Facebook, on the other hand, has doubled down on its real name policy, which has led to clashes with LGBT groups and others who point out that the policy could put domestic abuse victims and other vulnerable people at risk.
But sites that enable anonymous publishing, such as Secret or Whisper, have been equally controversial. Sure, they can be places where people can speak freely. But they can be breeding grounds for malicious rumors. Other times, the content posted to these apps is completely ignored. “If it’s completely anonymous, it’s boring,” Vronay says. “You want to know something about the person.”
Heard aims to be a place where where people can post juicy gossip with more credibility, but there are more lofty possibilities as well. It could become a place for people with particular medical conditions to swap information without exposing their real names. Heard’s verification system hasn’t been audited by outside security experts yet, but if it works well, it could be a boon to whistle blowers, who could use the site to prove their insider-status while protecting their identities.
The Leak Trade
By lowering the barrier of entry, or exit as the case may be, Heard could encourage more corporate and government leaks, says author and media critic Douglas Rushkoff, who serves as an advisor to the company. “Leakers from corporate America and government alike can share what they know—not just artifacts and smoking guns they can post,” he says. “And the veracity of the source doesn’t detach from the teller, the way it invariably does in Deep Throat style communications today.”
It could also help disrupt the culture of celebrity online today. Articles might be judged more by their substance, and the actual credentials of the author, than by brand they’ve built up. “What you share is less important because of who you ‘are’ than you really happen to be,” he says.
In other cases, the verification system could help prove someone’s expertise in a particular area, even if they don’t end up posting anonymously. “I don’t want to read a review of a 5 star hotel from someone who has never stayed at a 5 star hotel before,” he says. “Of course they’re going to think it’s great. I want a review from someone who stays in them all the time.” That’s a rather banal case, but it could provide a way to verify that someone who claims to be a doctor, lawyer or academic actually has the background they claim they do.
How It Works
If you want to prove something—such as where you work, how often you stay in five star hotels—you’ll need to find a someone running Heard’s badge issuing technology that can verify it. For example, someone could setup a server designed to verify whether you’re an Apple employee by having you enter your @apple.com email address.
The server would then send a test message with a code to make sure you can actually receive email from that address. A server designed to verify that you frequently stay at a certain type of hotel might look at your credit card bills.
Once verified, you’re issued a badge in the form of a cryptographic token that you can then upload it to any server running Heard’s verification software. The verification server won’t know what e-mail address or credit card statement you used in order to get the badge, only that it was created by a particular issuer.
When you post to Heard, you can choose which badges to attach to a post. There’s no need, in other words, to reveal where you work if you’re writing a post about a hobby. For all intents and purposes, you’ll appear to readers as another user entirely. eard is starting out by running one that verifies whether you’re a “tech industry insider” by checking to see if you have an email address from one of about 20 major technology companies.
The Comment Revolution
Of course, the anonymity isn’t perfect. As with other anonymity apps, if Heard were issued a warrant, the company could be forced to turn over potentially identifying information such as IP address, or all the different badges associated with an account, which could eventually be used to deduce the identity of a poster.
Nonethesless, Vronay says whistle blowers could still use the system. But they would have to use a public terminal, along with traffic-scrambling tool like Tor, and create a completely new account.
But Heard isn’t a whistle-blowing site. It serves a broader purpose than that. It even offers a Netflix style recommendation engine that will learn what types of content people like, and surface articles accordingly. What’s more, the company has open soured both the issuing and verification software, so any organization can start creating and accepting these badges. That means any news site or blog could use it manage comments. Including this one.