Airbnb to launch identity-verification tool

Starting April 30, Airbnb will go to even greater lengths to insure you are who you say you are, online and in the real world. The apartment-sharing site will begin rolling out a verified identification program that matches digital identity — via social networking sites — with real-world proof — a photo ID. Once members have been verified, Airbnb will add a blue check-mark badge to their profiles. Says Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky, “Anonymity has no place in the future of Airbnb or the sharing economy.”

The sharing economy, as Chesky calls it, is the buzzy moniker that has come to describe companies that help people borrow or loan their stuff — from cars, boats, and personal chefs to extra bedrooms. Popular businesses include RelayRides, which lets users share cars, and KitchenSurfing, which lets chefs connect with those looking for a gourmet meal cooked at home. These services don’t work unless relationships brokered online can hold up offline and people keep the commitments they make. You’re inviting someone to use your stove or parallel park your Audi, after all. Trust is table stakes.

As the largest player in its space, Airbnb has been attempting to shore up identity in pursuit of increasing member safety since it began inviting members to leave reviews at the company’s 2008 launch. The next year, it added the ability to connect their Facebook (FB) accounts. Then in 2011, the company had a brush with disaster when an Oakland host returned home to find that a traveler had trashed her home in her absence. In response, Airbnb began rolling out trust and safety features that included a $50,000 host guarantee. Last year, the company raised the guarantee to $1 million.

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Airbnb’s Verifed Identification tool extends these efforts. Here’s how it works: First, users verify their online identity by syncing their accountswith either Facebook or LinkedIn (LNKD). (A social networking account must be legitimate; Airbnb screens for users who just signed up, say, yesterday and have no social history.) As an alternate option, users can rely on at least three positive reviews from different people on the site itself. This will be matched with a copy of a valid offline ID. Airbnb has made the process easy: Members can use smartphone cameras to scan a copy of a driver’s license or passport. Alternatively, they can plug in the last four digits of their social security number and their birthday.

Of course, there are sharing companies already doing this. Airbnb brings scale — more than 4 million people have either booked a spot, and there are more than 300,000 listings. To kick off the service, 25% of Airbnb’s U.S. members will be required to verify their identity. For now, verified identification is voluntary for the rest of Airbnb’s members, but everyone will be expected to verify their identity.

The real potential for verified ID could extend far beyond simply insuring users’ safety as they book and list apartments. As a platform for verified identity, Airbnb could become the cornerstone of a more mainstream sharing economy. Says Chesky, “I don’t think in the future we’re going to be interacting and doing things with strangers, but I also don’t think there will necessarily be strangers in the world in the future because everyone will have an identity.” Verified Identification could well become the passport of the future.

For the moment, Chesky is hoping that the new verified ID badges convince a broader group of people that hosting travelers is a safe idea — and that in the process, strangers everywhere become a little less strange.

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