The #10YearChallenge was fun when people shared their pictures one from today and one from a decade ago. It gained widespread traction on social media. Some made jokes, paid tribute to old hairstyles. Celebrities posted glamour shots from one decade to the next.
People were posting pictures on Facebook and Instagram, which is owned by Facebook. Then came a tweet that moved thousands of people to worry: Are we unknowingly helping Facebook to improve their algorithms for biometric identification and age progression?
But one tweet by Kate O’Neill went viral that reads “Me 10 years ago: probably would have played along with the profile picture aging meme going around on Facebook and Instagram,” she wrote in a tweet last week. “I now: ponders how all this data could be mined to train facial recognition algorithms on age progression and age recognition.”
She hit the nail, and people started debating about whether they were helping Facebook get better at identifying people. Kate O’Neill’s post got more than 10,000 retweets and more than 20,000 likes. She elaborated her thoughts in a widely shared article in Wired.
O’Neill said “I wondered about why this particular thought, in this particular moment, generated so much traction,” adding that she was not trying to stoke any panic.”
Experts said the photos for the #10YearChallenge is a very big bonus of data that Facebook has been collecting for years.
“We have an awful lot of data that we’re sharing all the time, and companies are collecting it and using it in various ways,” Ms. O’Neill said.
Supporters of facial recognition technologies said they can be indispensable for catching criminals or finding missing people. But critics warned that they can enable mass surveillance or have unintended effects that we can’t yet fully fathom.
The #10YearChallenge could conceivably provide a relatively clean data set for a company that wanted to work on age-progression technology,” said Lauren A. Rhue, an assistant professor of information systems and analytics at the Wake Forest School of Business.
She added that Facebook already has billions of photographs on its platform, and people should be wary of any company being in possession of such a large trove of biometric data.
“The risk of giving up any type of biometric data to a company is that there’s not enough transparency, not only about how the data is currently being used, but also the future uses for it,” she said, pointing to another form of biometric data, DNA, which is increasingly being used by law enforcement to track down suspects — something many people might not have anticipated when they volunteered saliva in exchange for help tracing their ancestral roots.
“There are things we don’t think of as being threats,” Professor Rhue said. “And then five or 10 years from now, we realize that there is a threat, but the data has already been given.”
Facebook announced that it was using facial recognition technology in 2010. The company said it does not intend to help strangers identify you, and has repeatedly pointed out that users can disable face recognition in their personal settings.
As for the 10-year challenge, Facebook said it’s just a fun trend. The company said on Twitter “the 10-year challenge is a user-generated meme that started on its own, without our involvement,”
Facebook has its share of controversy when last time when it faced crises when it was revealed how a political consulting firm had improperly obtained data of as many as 87 million Facebook users. The New York Times reported in November that company leaders had tried to play down major concerns about privacy or deflect blame, and in December that Facebook gave big technology companies more intrusive access to users’ personal data than it had previously disclosed.
Jennifer Lynch, the director of surveillance litigation for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights group said: “The threat to privacy has become real to people in the last year.” She added, “My hope is that people will become concerned about this vast face recognition database that Facebook has amassed and pushed back on Facebook, turn off face recognition in our Facebook profiles, and push for strict privacy laws at the state and federal levels.”