Airtime curtails privacy for the sake of safety

For fear of becoming another Chatroulette -- a short-lived video service that showed the world to a generation of flashers -- Airtime tightens its safety policy by taking random secret photos.

Screenshot of Airtime. Airtime

Now that the oohs and ahhs of Airtime's launch this week have settled, it's time to look at the nitty gritty of this new browser-based video chat service. One of the company's policies involve user privacy.

The way Airtime works is by using Facebook as its log-in platform. At its basic level, Airtime allows simple video chat with users' Facebook friends, but take it up a notch and it lets people chat with strangers that have common interests.

So, as a way to keep its users safe, the service takes random secret photos of video conversations between anonymous users that are then scanned and reviewed for indecent behavior, according to MSNBC.

Airtime was created by Napster co-founders Sean Parker and Shawn Fanning and has been described as an evolved version of Chatroulette, a video service that randomly matched up people around the world for chatting. Chatroulette ended up being a short-lived venture because it quickly devolved into a place where certain male users enjoyed flashing their genitalia.

Quick to avoid this type of behavior, Airtime put several measures into place to prevent it from deteriorating into a porn platform. During the video service's launch, Parker said one of Airtime's top principles is safety. The secret sauce to defeating the flashers is Facebook, Parker said, since Airtime is built on top of the social network there is accountability. "The system knows who you are," Parker said.

Listed in Airtime's terms of service are types of inappropriate behavior that are banned on the site, including nudity or partial nudity, obscene or vulgar behavior, sexually suggestive behavior, violence, animal cruelty, and drug use.

But the only real way to tell if this type of behavior is happening, especially on anonymous chats, is by monitoring the calls.

"Since it's likely the two people in a matched call don't know each other, we take periodic screenshots during the video chat to monitor for any inappropriate conduct," an Airtime blog post from today says. "Screenshots are taken for all matched calls and we only take screen captures, not video or audio recordings, as part of our safety measures."

These screenshots are then run through a computer algorithmic review process that uses technology like face and luminosity detection. Those shots flagged as "problematic" by the computer are then examined by Airtime's "team of trained safety professionals." If the shots do show lewd behavior, the accused user is immediately locked out of the service.

"One strike and you're out," the blog says.

According to MSNBC, Airtime stores these screenshots indefinitely "for historical perspective" and to "detect abuse patterns." However, besides users' Facebook accounts, the video service's safety team affirms that it doesn't view any other user information.

So far, it seems to be fairly smooth sailing for Airtime and its safety concerns. "After one day, we're happy that we've rarely had to enforce any of our policies despite a high volume of matched calls," the blog says, "and some of those were from curious users trying to test our safety systems in amusing ways."

It seems Airtime comes with the same types of tradeoffs as most other online services today -- for the sake of safety, privacy is curtailed.

 

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