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AI tech experts warn users to know the repercussions in joining the AI yearbook trend

Every so often, there comes an AI-generated photo trend that Filipino netizens love to check out. Last week, images that require one to squint his or her eyes to read the message hidden in the objects razed the internet.

This time around, it’s the retro yearbook trend that got Filipinos in a chokehold. 

Developed by South Korean company Snow Corporation, Epik is a photo editing application that has a feature that transforms self portraits into 1990s cheerleaders, athletes, and more. Celebrities and social media influencers joining the trend only escalated the fast-growing number of the app users. 

However, with it being the most downloaded app across mobile devices, it has reopened the debate on the safety of using editing services like these.

Cybersecurity expert Eliezer Rabadon, who is also the CEO of DvCode Technologies, said that its availability on app stores like Google Play Store and Apple store means that it passed the basic terms for data privacy.

However, the photos uploaded by the users go into the company’s server, which is already outside the jurisdiction of Google and Apple.

“Pero kasi sa usapang—nandyan na ‘yung app mo, nakapagdownload na ‘yung mga tao—what are you doing doon sa mga data na binibigay nila sayo? Ano ‘yung ginagawa nila doon sa mga images na inaupload sa kanila,” Rabadon said.

According to the company’s privacy policy, the app collects information including the user’s in-app purchase information, location, face recognition, and behavioral advertising information for their third-party companies.

How it works

Just like any other AI apps, Epik requires its users to upload 8 to 12 selfies to generate throwback yearbook photos in different poses and hairstyles. 

Finally, the user has to pay 199 (Standard) and receive the 60 images in 24 hours or P299 (Express) and the images will be ready in two hours.

“When it comes to AI-generated content, may it be images or text, we have to remember that it is trained using past data,” said Justine Clemente, a senior data scientist at RingCentral.

Clemente, who is a former AI research engineer, explained that to use it as a tool, it has to be “fed” with new data.

“It uses your images and the past images of what yearbook—for sure they used yearbook images ng mga publicly available. And then the AI uses it to generate your yearbook photo. In technical terms, we call it style transfer,” He said.

Neural style transfer is a technique where two photos, a content image and a style reference image, are combined to generate a new image.

This works similarly with the FaceApp, which is run by a Russia-based company, that grew its popularity in 2019 by generating the aged version of one’s selfie.

Rabadon said that these kinds of trends drive people’s attention toward the fact that today’s technology has evolved compared to the previous years.

“Makikita natin na yung capability ni AI, as users. Kung tutuusin nadadagdagan na tayo ng ‘super powers’ na kasi dati hindi ‘yan possible. Kasi accessible na sa public ‘yung technology,” he said.

Furthermore, Rabadon said that this adds convenience to people’s “way of life” aside from the nostalgia they receive by participating in the trend.

Join with precaution

In 2022, Google required Android developers to submit a privacy policy with their applications. The data policy will allow users to know where one’s data is going and how it will be used by the company.

Rabadon encouraged the need for users to “not skip” the app’s terms and conditions before uploading their information.

“Kung gusto talaga nating gamitin, at least alam natin yung nakasulat doon sa terms and conditions nila and kung gusto pa rin talaga natin ituloy–edi okay lang,” the cybersecurity expert said.

Meanwhile, Clemente advised users to use a plain background or shirt to avoid your location to be distinguished.

“It’s not recommending, it’s more on—if you’re happy with using this tool, why not? Just do it. As long as you know the repercussions. In every tool na gagamitin natin, we should know first ano ‘yung cons niya if we surrender our data.”

Moreover, Armielyn Obinguar, Safe’s chief technology officer and co-founder, warned users to be more vigilant amid the rise of today’s technology. She noted that most most people skip the terms and conditions of an app after three years.

Obinguar said that the risks that the trend entails can be mitigated by “not joining the hype.”

“In every technology, there is a risk. We have to learn to manage it,” She said.

Yearly, discussions regarding cybersecurity arise whenever AI-generated photos become viral online. Softwares like Epik’s allow companies access to one’s personal data, location, and metadata.

The National Privacy Commission has also raised caution to users who are planning to download the app, saying that it will assess whether the photo editing service adheres to the Data Privacy Act.