by Nam Chu Hoai over 8 years ago

XKCD comic

The best thing about the Internet is that it can connect you with anybody anywhere in the world. You can Skype from Boston to San Francisco, tweet from London to Hong Kong, and plan which restaurant in Helena, Montana, you’re going to visit next week before you drive 30 hours to get there.

However, meeting people on the Internet can also be more difficult and complicated than shaking hands with somebody new at the coffee shop.

The main issue with the Internet is that you don’t know if the person you’re interacting with is even a real person or is pretending to be someone else. You could be talking to a someone made of code and a processor rather than skin and bones. There are thousands and millions of other spambots like Lisa that you might encounter.

Scammers can claim to be the King of Nigeria or offer you a great deal on Viagra to get your credit card number and personal information, which they can then use to steal from you. Phishing—where scammers pretend to be a site such as eBay or your bank in order to steal information—has also been used frequently.

For the most part, spam and unwanted interactions can be screened so we can get to the people we really want. Gmail has excellent spam filters, and sites such as Twitter and Facebook allow us to flag fraudulent profiles. Though we still run into spam emails and get friend requests from fake profiles on Facebook, these distractions are relatively rare.

When someone does manage to steal personal information, the worst thing that can usually happen is financial loss. But credit card companies and banks often protect against identity theft, so losing money is unlikely to happen with proper reporting.

On the other hand, screening becomes much more difficult when money is not the only thing at risk. When interactions move from the Internet to the real world, they can become much more dangerous. Craigslist, online dating, ridesharing, and many other services can all jeopardize safety.

Screening the same way doesn’t seem to make sense. Correct spelling and a reasonable email address usually merit a response, but say nothing about the safety of meeting in person. You might notice if you’re browsing on a suspicious URL, but a trusted URL doesn’t promise that the person you are about to meet has no malicious intent.

Existing methods of filtration are well developed for interactions that take place solely on the Internet, but once these interactions transition to the real world, we lose our sense of security. We need a new way to screen people that’s more than just typing a name or email into Google.

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