A tru.ly useful way to verify identities online

Web startup tru.ly promises to tell the world you really are who you say you are - honest.

You know who you are, and I know who I am. But how do I know you’re really who you say you are (and vice versa) when we’re connecting on Facebook, or doing a transaction on eBay, or chatting on a dating profile, or even applying for a job online?

It’s not an easy question to answer. In the age of the Internet, almost no information can be fully trusted. Spoofing identities is childs’ play – and for some, part of the Net’s appeal is the ability to operate semi- or completely anonymously. But there are times when that just won’t fly.

And that is where tru.ly comes in. This startup promises to prove that you are who you say you are by verifying your identity against government databases. Signing up for tru.ly is free, though a custom URL with your name on it costs $5 a year. More premium services will be available down the line.  

To verify my identity I had to submit my name, email address, last four digits of my social security number, my birthday, and my permanent address. The system is pretty strict. Entering “Dan Tynan,” for example, failed to work. I had to enter my name as it appears on my birth certificate.

(And if someone steals your information and attempts to set up a tru.ly account in your name? Co-founder David Gordon says they have algorithms in place that can detect fraudulent signups, though he declined to share the details. He also says that if it comes down to it, his team can call you via Skype and manually verify your identity.)

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Download a browser plug in (Chrome or Firefox only) and you can tell which of your Facebook, LinkedIn, or Twitter friends are “tru.ly Verified,” and which aren’t. If their profile says they are tru.ly Verified, you can click a link to view their tru.ly profile, where they can reveal as much of their basic info (address, phone, birthday, education, resume) as they wish.

If you want to see some of the information marked “Protected,” you can send them a request. They can unlock that information just for you, if they feel like it.  If they aren’t verified, you can request they do so by clicking the tru.ly link on Facebook, Twitter, or Linked In.

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It’s a very neat idea, when it works. Of course, it doesn’t always work. In fact, using the browser plug ins to view people’s identities or request verifications worked less than half the time.

Gordon acknowledges they’ve had some problems with the browser plug ins and are working on a fix. The bigger challenge is the obvious chicken and egg problem – i.e., how to get enough people to use tru.ly that it become an (ahem) truly useful service, and not just something used by a handful of geeks who really need to get out more. Gordon hinted at partnerships with entities like dating sites and commenting engines that could help bring tru.ly into the mainstream.

He also acknowledges that some people will bristle at the idea of a service that pins down their identity online. He says tru.ly will have the ability to verify your identity without necessarily revealing your personal information to anyone else – essentially saying that, yes, this person is real, even if you don’t know his or her actual name.

“We’re not trying to force people to communicate across the Net in a verifiable way all the time,” he says. “We just want to allow people to share what they want to share in a verifiable way, when they want to do so. There will be a time when you need to show who you are for some service or transaction, even if only happens once a year.”

I think authentication and identity are going to be huge issues, especially as our socially networked selves become our virtual representatives in cyberspace. More and more deals, jobs, and relationships will happen entirely in the non-meatspace, and we’ll all need a way to know who we’re really dealing with. If that’s not tru.ly, exact.ly, it will be something much like it.

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