After Threats, Austin Founder Shut Down Browser Firm Authenticated Reality

Austin—When Authenticated Reality launched last year, it seemed that the company had struck gold in terms of market demand and fit. The Austin-based startup had developed a Web browser that would require users to prove they are who they say they are.

Users would have to sign up for an account—scanning their driver’s license and taking a photo—in order to download the browser, which would sit “on top” of the Internet, said Chris Ciabarra, Authenticated Reality’s co-founder, in an interview last year. “Everybody knows who everybody is,” he said.

So, when Facebook announced this week that its site was, once again, home to inauthentic pages and accounts designed to influence the outcome of the upcoming midterm Congressional elections, I contacted Ciabarra to find out how the company was doing.

But, he said Wednesday that he had shut down the startup just a month after its debut. He said people who had heard about Authenticated Reality from media reports were visiting the firm’s offices in California and threatening employees. (The addresses were listed on the website.) “It was getting kind of scary,” he told me. “They were thinking we were taking their freedom away because they had to sign up using a driver’s license. They thought we were trying to follow them.”

In addition to the personal visits, Ciabarra said, the company received “hundreds” of harassing e-mails, all of which he said was reported to law enforcement. Ciabarra said the company returned nearly all of the $1 million it had raised to its investors. “I just realized we have to turn it off,” he said.

With so much of life migrating online, the issue of whether we are interacting with real people is becoming increasingly important. Sure, we want to be sure that the businesses which we are patronizing are real in that they deliver what we pay for. But, as the Facebook controversy shows, fake accounts designed to resemble those that come from peers, which are designed to spread propaganda, can have serious consequences.

“There’s definitely a need for a platform like this,” Ciabarra said.

He added that he still gets contacted by people interested in using Authenticated Reality’s technology. (Though the company has stopped operating, Ciabarra said he hasn’t yet taken down its website.)

Since Authenticated Reality closed up, Ciabarra co-founded Employee Wow, which sells employee-management software for businesses. Ciabarra said he’s now working on a startup in Austin called Athena, which he didn’t want to share many details about except to say that the technology acts as a “virtual bodyguard.” (Employee Wow’s website still lists him as the company’s co-founder and CTO.)

Looking back at Authenticated Reality, Ciabarra said if he were to start the company again, one thing he would change is to make providing a driver’s license ID optional. In that case, people would be labeled as “authenticated” or “not authenticated.”

Authenticated users could be given special privileges such as the ability to kick off unauthenticated users who were peddling “fake news” or harassing other users. “That’s a way it could police itself,” he said.

But apparently it’ll be up to someone else to take on an Authenticated Reality 2.0. “I’ll even give them the code if they want,” he said.

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