Technology & Science·Analysis

Developer removes controversial age-guessing software

If you have a profile on LinkedIn, it probably lists your education and your work experience. But one thing it couldn't tell anyone was your age — until a controversial browser extension appeared recently.

Age-Insight extension enabled users to estimate a person's age through a LinkedIn profile

The creator of Age-Insight posted a notice on his website, saying he has decided to stop supporting his Chrome add-on.

If you have a profile on LinkedIn, it probably lists your education and your work experience. But one thing it couldn't tell anyone was your age — until recently.

A controversial browser extension called Age-Insight, which is a Google Chrome add-on, will estimate the age of a person when you visit their LinkedIn profile.

That means alongside their work experience and education, you'll get the algorithm's best guess at how old that person is.

But along with that has come some controversy — which has led the plug-in's designer to stop supporting his product.

Developer says it's a simple algorithm 

Age-Insight was released earlier this month by Juan Ramirez, who built it in his spare time. He says it came out of his own personal habit of trying to guess the ages of people he'd see on LinkedIn.

According to Ramirez, Age-Insight uses a fairly simple algorithm, which makes a guess on a person's age by looking at the graduation year on a LinkedIn profile.

He said it also incorporated data on things such as a person's name.

"You can pool this data and say, like, 'Oh, this person is named Juan,' " he said. "Juan was a popular name in 1989. You can try to normalize the data using that."

Work experience, and the number of jobs a person has held, were also incorporated

Ten days after it was released, Age-Insight was featured on Product Hunt, an influential technology website, where it quickly earned a mixed reaction.

Age discrimination concerns

While some people appreciated the idea of being able to guess a LinkedIn member's age, others worried Age-Insight could enable age discrimination.

Which is when Ramirez says he had a change of heart about his add-on.

"I didn't develop this extension to encourage that kind of behaviour," he said. "Probably by 2 p.m. that day, I was ready to shut it down."

The same day the add-on was profiled on Product Hunt, Ramirez says, he received a cease-and-desist order from LinkedIn.

So on Oct. 18, he removed Age-Insight from the Chrome Store, and posted a notice to his website saying he'd no longer support the plug-in, and that he didn't want to be seen as enabling discrimination of any kind.

But that doesn't mean Age-Insight is necessarily gone — like so many things online, once this kind of software has been made public, it's hard to take back.

This is also not the only age-identifying software we've seen recently. Earlier this year, Microsoft created an online tool called How-Old.net, which would guess the gender and age of a person based on an uploaded photo.

While both How-Old.net and Age-Insight were replicating things humans might naturally do — guess a person's age based on available information — the difference is that the process has been automated, which could lead to unintended consequences.

And Ramirez said his experience with Age-Insight offers a caution: Just because you can solve a technical challenge, doesn't mean you should.

About the Author

Dan Misener

CBC Radio technology columnist

Dan Misener is a technology journalist for CBC radio and CBCNews.ca. Find him on Twitter @misener.