I was inspired to think about the problem of impersonation on the web, when I read Caterina Fake’s comment on Twitter, bemoaning the fact that somebody was able to impersonate her in a comment on GigaOm. Because they used an email associated with her by Gravatar, the comment gained an element of authenticity because her avatar picture appeared by it.
My initial reaction, like Caterina’s, was to assume there is something wrong in the Gravatar model. Why should somebody be able to masquerade as me simply by guessing the email address I associated with Gravatar? But Matt Mullenweg of Automattic, which owns Gravatar, explained concisely that the fundamental problem of impersonation cannot be prevented by their service. An impersonator could just as easily have associated a new email, “email@example.com” with Gravatar, and uploaded a copy of her avatar.
A Hopeless Situation?
I am convinced by Matt’s claim that Gravatar is not in a position to prevent impersonation. However, it’s possible to imagine ways in which Gravatar could promote authenticity. Gravatar already allows me to create an account through which I claim email addresses and can control which avatars should appear for these addresses. In addition, it allows me to confirm that account’s association with certain services such as Blogger.com, Facebook, Twitter, etc. This, combined with the fact that use of Gravatar is already widespread on the web, makes it a great candidate for serving as an arbiter of trust in arbitrary contexts on the web.
Web sites that make use of Gravatar’s services are currently able to fetch an image associated with a particular email address, by manipulating (hashing) the user’s email address in such a way that the email address is no longer discernable, but Gravatar can easily look up the associated avatar image.
There are steps that Gravatar could take to make possible the “authentication” of specific Gravatar appearances on the web. It would be exhausting to elaborate on the variety of ways this might be done, and many of the options that spring to mind also bring to mind many pitfalls and annoyances, not to mention significant service demands on Gravatar. Maybe the authentication would require hosting sites to present authentication keys, or maybe users would just whitelist particular comment URLs. Let’s not get bogged down in details: the details are for companies like Gravatar to take on if they choose to meet the challenge.
In a world where Gravatar offered some form of per-use authentication, a site like GigaOm could show a trust icon next to commenters’ avatars, or maybe it would be integrated into the avatar as a form check-mark badge or something. Click on the trust icon and it might take you to a Gravatar page where a curious reader could gauge authenticity with Gravatar’s help:
The Gravatar being shown at <link to e.g. a comment url> was verified by Daniel Jalkut, a registered Gravatar user. Daniel is known to be associated with Twitter ID “danielpunkass”, and controls the web site domain http://www.red-sweater.com. For more information, view his profile here.
The current Gravatar user profiles already lean strongly towards identity confirmation. Some clever techniques for authenticating comments would not eliminate impersonation, but would allow identity-concerned users such as Caterina a means of participating in web conversations while proactively confirming their own identities.