June 6, 2012 at 5:13 PM ET
Airtime, a browser-based video chat service, launched on Tuesday. It's shiny, new and created by Napster co-founders Sean Parker and Shawn Fanning. It's also prone to taking snapshots of your video chats and sending them to trained Airtime employees, who review them for inappropriate content.
Sounds somewhat creepy, right? That's what I thought, so I had a lengthy conversation with an Airtime spokesperson who broke down what happens in the background, while you use the service. The details will probably still leave you feeling a bit uneasy, but it's better to be informed and uncomfortable than to be caught completely off guard.
(NBC News, a division of msnbc.com parent company NBC Universal, has been a media partner during Airtime's launch.)
What is Airtime?
As you may know, Airtime is essentially a browser-based video chat service which relies on your Facebook identity. All you have to do is grab a webcam, head to the Airtime website and login using your Facebook account — no downloads or installations are required.
The service will allow you to video-chat with your Facebook friends or match up with strangers, based on location and shared Facebook interests. (Your identity isn't revealed to the strangers until you choose to share your name, mind you.) If you're not particularly charmed by your chat partner, you can simply click "next" and go on to the next one.
As we pointed out when we first covered Airtime, the service works a lot like Chatroulette — a site which randomly paired strangers up for video chats. The trouble with Chatroulette, of course, was that many users — ahem — exposed themselves on camera.
We speculated that Airtime might simply be hoping that associating its users' Facebook accounts — and in theory, their real identities — with their Airtime usage might discourage them from getting indecent.
But there's oh-so-much-more to how Airtime is trying to avoid the so-called "Chatroulette penis problem."
Smile! You're in a snapshot!
Airtime's spokesperson tells me that the company invested significant amounts into the technology used to maintain user safety. In fact, the team dedicated to this task is by far its largest, by head count. A large portion of these Airtime employees are trained to analyze and evaluate abusive behavior — and to nip it in the bud.
According to Airtime, when you have a video chat with a stranger — meaning someone who is not one of your Facebook friends — the service quietly takes snapshots. How often these snapshots are taken is determined by an algorithm which assigns a risk percentage to each user, based on how likely he or she might be to engage in inappropriate behavior. (Factors used to determine this risk percentage include — but are not limited to — age, gender, location, and the time the service is being used.)
As soon as these snapshots are taken, the spokesperson tells me, they are analyzed by a number of automated filters, which check, among other things, for the presence of a face and the luminosity of the image. (The assumption is that you are theoretically more likely to be engaging in inappropriate behavior if you are sitting in a dimly lit room.) The Airtime spokesperson refrained from elaborating further on the nature of the other filters used to analyze snapshots, explaining that this could potentially compromise some of their effectiveness.
Wait — what did you say about someone looking at my video chats?
Any snapshots which are deemed to be showing potentially inappropriate behavior — which according to the Airtime terms of service includes nudity, violence, animal cruelty, drug use and more — are flagged and sent to the Airtime's Tier 1 safety team.
The trained professionals who make up this team are able to view the flagged snapshot as well as a user's snapshot history in order to best determine if he or she is engaging in inappropriate behavior. Though each snapshot is associated with an individual's Facebook user ID, Airtime assured us that safety reps are not able to view any other user information.
If members of the Tier 1 safety team believe that a snapshot displays behavior which violates the service's terms of service, they will escalate it to the Tier 2 team. Members of this second team have additional training which will help them determine whether a user should be permanently banned from Airtime — and whether there is a need to notify authorities. The policy is "one strike and you're out," says the Airtime spokesperson.
Are Airtime bans really permanent?
There's currently no way to use Airtime without a Facebook account. So when a member of the service's safety team bans you, he or she is banning your Facebook identity. In theory, you could try to make a new Facebook account and use that to log back into Airtime, but there are roadblocks.
"You have to demonstrate social behavior before you can get on the site," explains the Airtime spokesperson. Just as a credit card company might look at your credit history, Airtime looks at your Facebook history in order to determine whether it will grant you access. If you do not have a minimum number of Facebook friends, you will not be able to get onto Airtime. This minimum friend threshold, among other factors, makes it more difficult for banned users to regain access to Airtime by simply creating new Facebook accounts.
How long does Airtime keep these snapshots ... and why?
This longterm storage struck me as startling, so I asked Jeff Hermes — director of the Digital Media Law Project at Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet and Society — for some perspective.
"When we talk about privacy concerns, the primary question we have is whether there is sufficient notice given to users about whether their information is going to be stored," he explained. "We review these issues from the perspective of whether there is a legal issue."
The terms of service and privacy guidelines made online by most companies, such as Airtime, tend to be "deemed acceptable" by courts, Hermes told me.
This scares me! Can I somehow make Airtime delete my snapshots?
You can submit a request to Airtime, via its support email address, to have your snapshots deleted. But if you do it, your Airtime account will be deactivated as well.
A member of the service's safety team will manually review your snapshots and trigger the deletion process within about 24 hours. All data associated with your account and identity will be deleted, unless there are legal reasons to retain the images.
Once your account is deleted, due to your own request, you will not be able to instantly reactivate it. A member of Airtime's safety team will have to review the reasons for deletion and may grant reactivation on a case-by-case basis.
Why did this one guy get banned, while this other one did not?
While the Airtime spokesperson was explaining the details of the service's safety procedures to me, I was left confused. Christopher "Moot" Poole, founder of 4chan and Canvas, tweeted that he'd been banned within 45 seconds of using Airtime while BuzzFeed's Matt Buchanan sent someone a very obscene video without any consequences.
This was because Poole "drew a picture which violated [Airtime's] terms of service" while chatting with a stranger, says the spokesperson. Buchanan, on the other hand, sent an obscene video to a Facebook friend of his. Snapshots are not taken of video chats between Facebook friends. I've reached out to Poole to get his side of the story — though he hasn't replied — but Buchanan confirmed the details of his own situation in a BuzzFeed blog post.
What does this all mean?
Airtime's slightly unnerving safety procedures mean the same thing any other safety procedures seem to mean lately: That you have to sacrifice some privacy in exchange for safety.
"I'm not sure that there is a perfect technological solution for this," says Hermes. "It's a trade off and a judgment that needs to be made by the users."
Chester Wisniewski, senior security advisor at Sophos, echoed that sentiment. Privacy for safety, especially in a product that's free. "That's the trade off," he told me. "You have to decide."
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