If Alanis Morrisette penned her hit “Ironic” for today’s audiences, she would be remiss if she didn’t mention how social media – a decidedly modern tool – is often used as a way to reminisce about the past.

Just recently, the “10-Year Challenge” swept across Facebook and Instagram wherein users posted one picture of themselves today next to another, you guessed it, from a decade before.

It seemed like wholesome fun, until Katie O’Neill tweeted the following:


In a subsequent article in Wired, O’Neill explains that while her tweet was intended as “flippant” and funny, it did reflect that this data could plausibly be used to train an algorithm. In fact, having millions of 10-year comparisons could go far in advancing its understanding of age-related characteristics.

Social media privacy in the age of memes and quizzes

The “10-Year Challenge” demonstrates how social media is the new corner diner, downtown bar, hip coffee house or sleek coworking space where personal information about our pasts is shared in a largely public setting (even if you intend it to be private). While an innocent time-hopping photo seemed safe enough, you never really know what your audience will do with that information or who your audience is at all.

A popular example of this is those fun quizzes that come across your timeline and list out some basic history to share with our friends, their friends and … whoever else. As enjoyable as it can be to get nostalgic about prior pets and hometowns, no one really knows where these questionnaires originated. We may assume the person we received it from is the author or one of their close acquaintances for sure, but honestly, we do not know. It appears to be harmless and because we trust the source, we often haphazardly reply and share, almost at a Pavlovian level.

For those of you not familiar, here is a quick sample of the questions that a typical quiz might pose:

  • Are you married or single? (often followed by “how many marriages?” to keep the allure of an innocent question)
  • First car ever driven? (often followed by “what is your favorite brand of car?”)
  • Best friend in high school? (usually followed by “are you still friends?”)
  • Where did you meet your spouse?
  • Where is your favorite place to vacation?
  • Favorite teacher? (most often in security questions it is specific to a grade level, but if the teacher was your favorite, that is the one most likely that you will provide)
  • What is your favorite color?
  • When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
  • Can you name the street you grew up on? (often followed by “is the house still there?”)
  • Name of your first pet? (often followed by “what breed?”)

These may sound like the questions you might answer when opening a bank account or otherwise protected online portal – and that may not be a coincidence. Someone with malicious intent could be sending out these quizzes to glean just that so they can hack into accounts.

Or as O’Neill demonstrated, any public information could be used by third parties in any manner of ways. Don’t forget, just last year Facebook was caught selling users’ data to other tech firms and Cambridge Analytica, which intended to use it for political purposes.

Protect yourself from a social media “nostalgia trap”

To ensure your privacy – other than saving the reminiscing for discussions around old yearbooks – you can follow these steps:

  • If you recall participating in one of these sharing activities, go to your social media application and remove it immediately.
  • If you have answered any security questions within your financial accounts that remotely resemble the answers provided in the sharing activity, change the answers immediately – even to something unrelated. Be sure to securely document any changes to security questions.
  • One best practice is to use false answers to security questions which will really throw any hacker off. Just be sure to store the passwords securely since they may be more difficult to remember.

Other precautionary steps that should also be undertaken for the long-term security of your privacy include:

  • Use two-factor or multi-factor authentication for your applications.
  • Use a password management tool to document passwords and security question answers.
  • Use a different password and security questions for each account.
  • Change passwords every six months

And maybe tell Uncle Owen to keep his high school football stories off Facebook and just share at the next family dinner.

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