“I like to look back at old memories and smile,” said the 25-year-old Kolkata resident Smitakshi Chowdhury. That’s what prompted her to upload a decade-old photo of herself alongside a recent one on Facebook last week without much thought. Chowdhury is among tens of thousands of people who have participated in the “ten year challenge” that has gone viral in recent days as social media users nostalgically display “then” and “now” images of themselves to the world.

Among the prominent Indian personalities who showed how they’d changed over the decade were movie stars Sonam Kapoor, Diana Penty and Shruti Haasan.

But is there a darker design to this initiative to get social media users to sportlingly show what a difference a decade can make? On January 15, an article in Wired suggested that the fad could be an ingenious ploy to gather data on a person’s age or how people age over time. The article by technology writer Kate O’Neill noted that data obtained in this way could be put to a variety of purposes, some benign such as targeted advertising, and some not so harmless.

“Age progression could someday factor into insurance assessment and health care,” O’Neill writes. “For example, if you seem to be ageing faster than your cohorts, perhaps you’re not a very good insurance risk. You may pay more or be denied coverage.”

This hypothesis set off a frenzy, as social media users issued warnings against participating in the challenge. But others noted that Facebook already has photographs of many long-time users from 10 years ago or more. It was also pointed out that the metadata of images posted online contains information about the date on which the photo was taken, where it was shot and the unique identification number of the photo device – even though most people don’t realise this. With so much information already out there, there isn’t much the 10-Year Challenge could add.

“Facebook has spookily sophisticated face-recognition technology, as anyone who’s seen Facebook’s automatic tagging software at work will tell you,” wrote Max Read in New York Magazine.

The debate has revolved around not only what tech companies know about social media users but how they share this information. For instance, Facebook’s facial tagging system identifies people in images to third parties, making it susceptible to misuse. In fact, Facebook had been storing data obtained through facial recognition software since 2011, without notifying or obtaining consent from its users. It was only in February 2018 that it gave users the chance to opt out of the system.

Facebook, on its part, in an official statement, said that it was not involved with the 10-Year Challenge.

Possibilities of misuse

While personal information uploaded online could potentially be misused in several ways, that does not mean just about any doomsday scenario is feasible, said Pranesh Prakash of the Centre for Internet and Society.

“Insurance companies always try to gather as much information as they can about a person to weed out bad risks but governments regulate these companies on the matter of what they can or cannot use,” he said.

For example, in 2018, the Delhi High Court ruled that insurance companies could not deny coverage to a person based on their genetic history, he noted. However, the contradictory ruling also said that if a disorder was established after genetic testing, the insurance company could deny coverage or demand higher premiums.

Prakash suggested a more dire situation. “Suppose the data produced from the 10-Year Challenge is used to improve the quality of deepfakes and that is put into making pornography about you against your will?” he said. “That business, unlike insurance, is unregulated.”

What are deepfakes?

On the other hand, the prospect of a person’s rate of ageing being calculated by algorithms could also be beneficial. “If a medical AI [artificial intelligence] company figures out your health looking at the data based on your face and detects early skin cancer, would anyone be complaining about this?” asked Shashank Bijapur, co-founder of SpotDraft, a Gurgaon-based company that creates and manages legal contracts using artificial intelligence.

He noted that while it is impractical to expect businesses to ignore the opportunity to use such data to their advantage, social media users should make informed decisions while signing up on platforms. “Every such app online has a privacy policy which is made available to whoever is using it right at the beginning,” Bijapur said.