Be careful what you upload


The latest social media craze – or meme or whatever the term is for things like the ‘ice bucket challenge’ – to sweep through internet passed me by. Like the others before it, I couldn’t be bothered taking part.

Apathy has its own rewards, as the alarm was raised that the #10yearchallenge might actually be a risk to our privacy and security. Another nefarious means by which Facebook is sucking up all our personal data in its quest to rule the virtual world.

While it may just be harmless fun – and Facebook has denied instigating the #10yearchallenge – it is certainly helpful to those to who may be creating age-progression algorithms. That’s according to internet security experts like Katie O’Neill who raised the alarm in the first instance and whose exploration on the topic in a Wired article makes for sobering reading.

A good reminder that you should be careful what you upload. Although even if you didn’t take part in the #10yearchallenge, it still might affect you. Those age-progression algorithms getting a boost from this sudden boon in structured data (photos helpfully labelled ‘me in 2009’, ‘me in 2019’) might someday impact all of us. One of O’Neill’s negative scenarios is that an algorithm is used by insurance companies to assess how people age in a decade, and if a person appears to be ageing faster than average, his or her premiums might reflect that.

But far more intrusive and potentially harmful in my view is the attitude that some people have about their DNA profile. There may be lots of good reasons to send off to a sample of your spit to a company for DNA analysis, but I can’t think of many. Maybe you find that you have a gene that has the potential to cause a certain disease and learning this will be the impetus you need adopt a healthier lifestyle.

In reality what you are doing is revealing an enormous amount about yourself – and your whanau – to a company that is probably based overseas and therefore out of reach of New Zealand law. The Law Commission’s issues paper reviewing the Criminal Investigations (Bodily Samples Act) 1995, quotes a New York law professor in the Washington Post who says people who upload their DNA to genealogy websites often don’t consider how this information will be used.

“Even if [users are] content with making that trade-off with their personal data, they’re also making that trade-off with their extended family, their children, their children’s children… And they’re not just making it for 2018, but for 2020 and 2040, when data from the genome could be used in all sorts of different ways.”

Once something is given away, it can be hard to get it back.

The effects of internet memes and recreational DNA websites were topics for discussion during my New Technology segment on Radio NZ’s Nine to Noon show last week. You can check it out here.


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