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Researchers from École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) are proposing a novel way to keep fake accounts and misinformation online at bay. A fundamental issue, according to Dr. Bryan Ford, Associate Professor at the EPFL computer science department, is that we have lost the ability to keep people accountable online. This is because computer networks are simply unable to differentiate between real and fake people – or even automated bots online.

“Most fake news and misinformation is not due to a lot of different people, explains Ford. “Rather, it is a few misbehaving people who can amplify their voice by hundreds of times.”

The idea is to link online tokens, similar to those used in the crypto-currency world, to real life persons. They have verified accounts while remaining anonymous. These tokens would be unique, non-replicable, and would be linked to a real-life individual by way of ongoing, in-person events that Ford calls ‘pseudonym parties’.

In these, people would gather at a specific place and time to get a unique digital token that would be registered to their use. Once registered, they can use their token key to verify their social media accounts and online presence.

Privacy and security

Among the more practical uses for the tokens is in their ability to anonymize one’s online presence while still staying accountable to servers. This is done by a public/private key pair where the private key is linked to the individual by way of a digital token and the corresponding public key is kept on an online ledger.

The effect for individual privacy is that the key would anonymize one’s online footprint and not leave information for servers to pick up across different platforms.

“Even if they collude and sell your information to each other,” explains Ford.

For security, it ties the key to an individual which can be accessed publicly. It does not mean that a server has your information, but it does mean that it can take steps to limit the ability of individuals to spread misinformation or abuse others.

Pseudonym parties

To verify individuals, Ford proposes, ideally, local events that people can briefly attend to get their digital token and continue to be verified. This has many challenges, including that the tokens would have to expire to keep individuals from accumulating them – meaning that people would have to attend the events regularly.

“Online, nobody is a real human forever, unfortunately,” says Ford.

Some challenges already have answers, while the rest are the subject of ongoing research.

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