Formalizing identity and trust on Couchers

Just read this research paper on verifying identity through informal social connections, rather than formal credentials. It’s a bit academic and aimed at a slightly different use case. But wanted to share it because I found it quite inspiring to think again about what identity verification and trust actually mean for a platform like Couchers:

How to verify and trust the identity of potential guests came up a few times recently. We also had rather extensive discussions early on how to formalize verification and community trust down the line. Both the recent topics as well as our earlier discussions involved checking state-issued id cards.

I found the paper inspiring in the sense that this perspective is not such a universal solution. We could probably first ask more specifically which features are actually relevant when we talk about identity and trust on Couchers. And to me that indeed doesn’t necessarily entail that someone is a certain formally verified person. But rather that someone is

  • who they claim they are on their profile
  • respecting the basic rules of the platform

We already implemented feedback features about respecting basic rules, likes asking members if they felt comfortable and respected during an exchange they had with another member. It seems we could follow a similar approach with regards to identity. So rather than framing identity as a state id check, we could design information like the current Overview section more like a community-verified id. Right now we have this look:

Screenshot from 2022-07-28 16-37-10

We could include a basic random feedback question about such statements when members leave feedback. E.g. “Nolo says they’re 45 yrs old. Did you feel that’s more or less accurate?”

Well, just some thoughts I wanted to share here.

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i’ve wondered about those with the Name on their profile being a fake name or some alias (usually such people would list their first name somewhere in their profile text), with that in mind, how would one verify their name is accurate through ID check? (assuming Couchers did such verification)

also in the example you gave, i’ve met a few surfers on CS who had their age as +100, as a protest of having to disclose their real age :Þ

Indeed, putting a different age on a profile was often used by women on CS to discourage unwanted attention.

After reading your post nolo, my first thought was yes, that sounds like a good approach. I personally didn’t like the thought of being asked to essentially check someone’s “documents” like I’m some kind of border agent or police officer. Your idea avoids that and also has the advantage of being fairly easy to implement too (at least I’m assuming so).

But now I’m starting to rethink the whole thing. Would this actually make using the site more safe? Might it be something that only gives the illusion of verification, especially in the few cases where it really matters? What does this actually add over and above the existing reference system? (Presumably if I show up at nolo’s place and nolo is clearly about 16 years old that’s going to show up in my reference!)

You mentioned we want to make sure people are “who they claim they are on their profile” and that they are “respecting the basic rules of the platform.” I totally agree. The second point is particularly crucial.

But in practice, what are the cases that we know of where people aren’t “who they claim to be”? I’m asking this genuinely. I’ve never interacted with someone through a hospex site who didn’t more or less match their profile. I assume there are such cases though. Why aren’t they describing themselves accurately? And in particular, in what cases is this happening and it’s a safety concern or is causing problems?

The number one example that comes to mind for me is people planning to use the platform to coerce people into having unwanted sex. (Are there other important sorts of cases that people are imagining and are hoping a verification system would help with?)

Would such a system actually help in these situations? Suppose some guy like this creates a profile with a fake name and other info and starts hosting/surfing. His first few guests/hosts are men. He introduces himself in a way consistent with the profile. Those folks have a decent time, give a normal “he’s a cool dude, had a fun time,” reviews and also check off these proposed items that assert everything matched up. The dude then hosts/surfs with a woman and rapes her.

What’s the next step here? In an ideal world the guy is immediately reported and removed from the platform. But now can’t he just create a new profile with a different name and do the same thing again? Is there any way to stop it? or even for Couchers to help hold the guy accountable through his country’s legal system?

Again, I really don’t like the idea of having to check my guests’ or hosts’ documents. I think it sets up a weird dynamic. But in the cases where it really matters, isn’t something like a legal ID or credit card information the only realistic way to help hold such people accountable and prevent re-offenders? Possibly things like physical addresses or ip addresses could be useful too? But is “yes he matched the profile” actually helpful?

I don’t want to fearmonger. I’ve never had a truly bad experience in all my many years of couchsurfing. But if we’re going to bother with verification, I don’t want it to be a placebo. It should demonstrably reduce the risks that do exist, or it’s probably not worth doing.

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IMO trust is the key here. Each user may decide to share as much / little as they want, but for safety & trust some basic truthful info must be available / could be verified, such as age/gender, languages and couch location (e.g. saying the couch is in London, but it’s really 2h away from there).