Facebook’s 10-Year Challenge went from nostalgic to dystopian real quick

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Facebook Meme Challenge Data Mining

NOTE: This post was originally published on January 25, 2019

A seemingly innocuous photo op with a potentially seedy underside, the 10-Year Challenge is the latest Facebook fad to grip the world. More than 5 million people have already participated—including A-list celebrities like Paul Rudd, Morgan Freeman, Reese Witherspoon, Jennifer Lopez, and more.

On the surface, it seems like a fun and simple way for Facebook users to show how much they’ve changed (or haven’t changed) over the last decade. However, a quick Google search for the 10-Year Challenge immediately lists dozens of articles detailing how invasive this new social fad may be.

It turns out a lot of people are worried this simple meme could be used to test biometric software, which could then be sold to advertisers, governments, and other third parties.

Training for the future

In a tweet that sent shockwaves through the spines of social media users everywhere, Wired writer Kate O’Neill jokingly pondered whether this whole challenge was a way for Facebook to train facial recognition algorithms.

Is it possible? No one really knows. But the ability to not only accurately guess a person’s age but also predict how they’ll look in 10 years could open up a whole new world of surveillance and privacy-selling for profit.

The better facial recognition gets, the more likely it is that a government (or anyone else) will be able to monitor and track your comings and goings—maybe everybody’s comings and goings. Or imagine an insurance company denying people coverage based on how badly they might age, or advertisers able to target a specific marketing scheme and/or service based on how a person may look in a few years. These are just a few examples of how this software could be used.

Facebook’s non-denial denial

According to Facebook, “The 10-year challenge is a user-generated meme that started on its own, without our involvement. It’s evidence of the fun people have on Facebook, and that’s it.”

Facebook’s curt response completely avoids mentioning facial recognition software, of course. But even if we accept Facebook wasn’t involved in making the meme, that doesn’t mean the company isn’t testing its software with it.

For some, the realization that Facebook likely already had these images in its database was enough to dispel any budding ideas of data mining. However, as O’Neill mentions in her article, “Thanks to this meme, there’s now a very large dataset of carefully curated photos of people from roughly 10 years ago and now.” The challenge wraps up the data in a tidy little bow, neatly correcting for all those people who post misdated or mislabeled images.

The case for facial recognition software

Proponents of facial recognition software claim that it can spot someone out of place in real time, possibly even preventing crimes from happening. Already, schools across the U.S. are working with independent security contractors to set up and install facial recognition systems in classrooms.

These software manufacturers say the technology can be used to keep better track of faculty, students, and visitors, as well as monitor any campus entries and exits.

And while the promise of improved campus safety is yet to be proved, there’s no denying that this type of software is infringing on people’s privacy—especially when you stop to think about all the companies that build, maintain, and possibly profit off this type of data.

How the world views biometric software

Already, biometric data mining is creating a rift between the public and the tech sector. We’ve seen what happens when the government tries to access a person’s biometrically locked smartphone without consent. (Just look back to what happened with the Apple vs. FBI fiasco back in 2015 for proof.)

The fight over privacy is still waged daily, and it seems like the consensus toward greater transparency when it comes to facial recognition software is overwhelming.

Technology is moving too fast for regulations to keep up, so it’s up to the public to approve or disapprove of these types of software.

In the case of the 10-Year Challenge, it’s evident that the public is skeptical, and rightfully so.

Go forth, but remain wary

While we’re not saying you should avoid Facebook memes and fun social fads altogether, it’s worth taking the time to stop and think how and why these types of memes exist.

Your personal information is too important to simply hand over. By most accounts, 2018 is already believed to be the worst year in history for data breaches, and with all the new technology and data-mining schemes popping up, any online social media trend should be approached with a healthy grain of salt.

But here’s the good news: There’s been enough speculation and hubbub over Facebook’s possible use for this data that the whole fad is already yesterday’s news. The winds of change are difficult to predict, but it’s hard to imagine this kind of outrage over a seemingly ordinary photo challenge a few years ago.

Are more people becoming aware of the dangers associated with facial recognition data, biometric data, and geo-location data? We certainly hope so. At the very least, most major media outlets are starting to catch on to how dangerous all this willy-nilly handling of personal data really is.

That alone offers a glimmer of hope for the future.