Airbnb incorporates tech to help build digital trust in data economy

Automated bots have made it difficult to determine whether someone online is real, but Airbnb is turning to tech to help build digital trust among its customers.

In the early days of the internet, people had to be concerned about whether the person they were interacting with online was lying about physical features or how much money they make.

But now, whether it's on Facebook, Twitter or internet dating profiles, consumers have to now question whether who they are interacting with are real people. This poses big questions for modern companies as they try to build digital trust with customers in the digital economy, said David Birch, director of innovation at Consult Hyperion.

"Right now, you don't know what's real when it's a Twitter bot, soon you won't know what's real with audio," said Birch during remarks at the KNOW Identity Conference in Washington, D.C., last week. "You can't even tell if it's a real person."

Innovations in the digital ID field were a big topic at the KNOW Identity Conference as more companies turn to tech such as biometrics and machine-learning-based authentication techniques. Questions about verifying digital ID are a big reason why companies are looking for tech-based answers, Birch said.

It's up to the industry to come up with solutions to these digital ID questions, he added, and to develop the tech-based tools and techniques to do something about it.

"Our ideas of trust don't work: We have to have new way of thinking," Birch said.

One company that is heeding the call is Airbnb, said Nick Shapiro, global head of trust and risk management at Airbnb. During his keynote at the conference, Shapiro noted that Airbnb's business model is built on digital trust -- especially since it relies on people trusting complete strangers in their homes.

Why is the sharing economy thriving when it's built on trust? Technology has a big part in that.
Nick Shapiroglobal head of trust and risk management, Airbnb

"Our product is trust," said Shapiro, who before Airbnb was deputy chief of staff for the CIA and senior counterterrorism aid for President Obama. "That's what we're working to facilitate every day, and we're doing it in one of the most incredible times in society in terms of trust -- and that's because it seems like there isn't any."

Society in general is going through what Shapiro called a "crisis of trust" right now, where trust in main institutions -- business, media, government and even nonprofits -- is plummeting. And because unfiltered, blatantly false information can flow so quickly all over the world, it's easy to sow this distrust online.

"But at the same time, trust is a fundamental currency of the sharing economy," Shapiro said. "Why is the sharing economy thriving when it's built on trust? Technology has a big part in that."

Airbnb uses a hierarchy of needs approach built on safety, transparency and support, Shapiro said. Every Airbnb reservation incorporates machine learning, predictive analytics and behavioral analysis to instantly evaluate hundreds of different signals on the reservation to determine red flags that would prevent the reservation from being approved.

Every host and guest worldwide is checked against terrorist watch lists and financial screening lists. Scam prevention is also a priority: To take away the motivation of scammers, guests don't pay until 24 hours after check-in.

"The internet and scams are basically synonyms," Shapiro said. "But on Airbnb we've made it very easy to book safely as long as you stay on the platform."

"In addition to running workshops that outline how to keep homes safe, Airbnb also uses technology to bolster safety. The company, for example, provides apps to guests with information such as emergency contacts for the area and where fire extinguishers are in the home.

Every host and guest also has a detailed profile webpage where people can learn about each other before making a reservation. Once a reservation is booked, they can also use a private messaging app through Airbnb to discuss issues about the stay. 

These aspects are part of another essential element of Airbnb's business model: to build digital trust between Airbnb customers themselves, Shapiro said. By using tech to provide customers with actionable information, Airbnb is helping build this digital trust for the company, and between their customers.

"That doesn't magically take place, it takes work," Shapiro said. "You have to facilitate that trust. You have to earn that trust. You have to build that trust. And technology plays a huge role in that."

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