Challenges Like #MeAt20 Are Fun As Hell. Experts Say Scammers Love Them, Too.

by Kaitlyn Wylde
A woman lies on a couch scrolling on Instagram. Sharing old nostalgic photos for Instagram challenge...
ArtistGNDphotography/E+/Getty Images

While you're stuck at home trying to entertain yourself with social media in lieu of a social life, there's no patience for #throwbackthursday or #flashbackfriday. Instead, nostalgic photo challenges that you can participate in any day of the week are gaining appeal. Ego aside, there might not be an obvious security risk in sharing an old photo of you in your college sweats looking hungover, or with your aged childhood pet. But experts say you could be providing hackers with a premium buffet of information without even realizing it.

People are "unknowingly sharing more personal information than usual," according to Jessica Robinson, the CEO of PurePoint International, a cyber security company. The more glimpses we give the public into our home lives, the more sensitive information we expose. On a basic security level, Robinson says letting people know your schedule can make you vulnerable to non-digital security concerns. "You might not want to publicize that you are out of the house, taking your daily 7 p.m. walk, or share footage of that walk with visible street signs or house numbers," Robinson says. That kind of information can put you at risk for break-ins, stalking, and more.

In terms of your digital safety, the more information your photos have, the more vulnerable you are to people who want to hack into your accounts, or steal your identify altogether. While there are safe ways to participate in social media challenges, it's important to understand the ways in which your photos could put you at risk.

The Short Term Effects Of Sharing Personal Information

According to Kristina Podnar, a digital policy consultant who specializes in cybersecurity, sharing your photos allows scammers, identity thieves and hackers to take immediate advantage of the information in the photos. "Many online accounts are secured via challenge questions like 'What was your high school mascot' or 'What is the name of your high school'," she says. Posting that throwback from your senior year homecoming can inadvertently unlock your bank for a keen-eyed hacker.

Podnar says that's all the information a scammer needs to wire all of the funds out of a bank account, or access sensitive accounts. Additionally, thieves can take the personal information obtained from your photos to impersonate an acquaintance or an employer. Then, they can seek out additional personal information about you from online friends and family, only to "pull the same kind of scam on a broader set of people," she says. For example, Podnar says she recently heard of someone impersonating an alumni office and asking for donations to the (fake) alma mater. The scam was directed at a group of college friends who took part in an online throwback challenge just like #MeAt20.

The Long-Term Effects Of Sharing Personal Information

In the long term, sharing personal photos and information allows scammers to build up more information about you and your network. "Many Instagram and Facebook photos are commonly fed into artificial intelligence (AI) platforms and used for machine learning (ML) algorithms," Podnar says, The images can be used for benign purposes (like teaching a system to recognize emotions from photos) but long term, "they can also be used for overcoming biometric security such as facial scans."

Though this risk might be a ways off, the data you're sharing now could be for sale on the dark web today. "The biggest area where I have seen personal imagery stolen and misused has been for forging identifies and traveling internationally (much of this is in the intelligence and criminal arena)," Podnar says. This information could also be accumulating towards a heist in the future. "Would you be comfortable if in five years, someone on the other side of the country or globe could unlock your phone because you uploaded your photo today? If not, then don’t share your private photos so publicly," Podnar suggests.

Another potential long-term effect that's definitely worth worrying about is the fact that your personal information could be harvested and used towards identity theft, an issue of a greater caliber than a spammy alumni email. Identity theft is when someone takes your personal details to build out a profile that they can use to do anything from lease a car to applying for multiple credit cards. It gets complicated when someone is spending money or racking up bills in your name with debt collectors and banks. While the Federal Trade Commission (FDA) can help you to fight fraudulent charges made in your name, it's a long process that doesn't always cover everything.

How To Share Photos Responsibly

Both digital security experts agree that sharing photos enriched with personal information is always a serious risk to your safety. "Think through the possible implications (short and long term) and try to share the information as narrowly as possible," Podnar says, adding that it's ideal if you can limit the amount of posts you share in general. According to Robinson, it's crucial to scan each image for potentially revealing information before posting. Look for house numbers, street signs, logos on clothing, mail items and paperwork. Before you post, make sure that there's nothing to zoom in on, and when you write a caption, don't accidentally answer a common security question like the name of your first pet, or your mother's maiden name, or your favorite food.

Though it might not feel like anyone is watching you, part of practicing good digital hygiene means assuming than anything you post can end up in the wrong hands, so limit the amount of free information you share, especially while you're racking up all of that extra screen time in quar right now. Though this might sound like a Liam Neeson thriller, it's a reality we have to be mindful of.


Jessica Robinson, CEO of PurePoint International

Kristina Podnar, a digital policy consultant and author of The Power of Digital Policy