By Brett Wilkins

Facebook’s 10-Year Challenge is arguably the hottest meme of 2019. More than five million social media users — many on Twitter and Instagram as well as Facebook — have posted side-by-side photos of themselves from now and a decade ago with the caption “how did aging affect you?” Celebrities from Jennifer Lopez and Janet Jackson to Ryan Seacrest and Caitlin Jenner have joined ordinary people in posting their 2009/2019 photos.

However, some observers wonder whether the 10-Year Challenge is something more sinister than just the latest viral fad. Kate O’Neill at Wired asks whether the meme is an underhanded effort by Facebook to mine user data for facial recognition artificial intelligence.

Days before the publication of her Wired piece, O’Neill tweeted:

Me 10 years ago: probably would have played along with the profile picture aging meme going around on Facebook and Instagram
Me now: ponders how all this data could be mined to train facial recognition algorithms on age progression and age recognition— Kate O’Neill (@kateo) January 12, 2019

O’Neill writes:

Imagine that you wanted to train a facial recognition algorithm on age-related characteristics and, more specifically, on age progression (e.g., how people are likely to look as they get older). Ideally, you’d want a broad and rigorous dataset with lots of people’s pictures. It would help if you knew they were taken a fixed number of years apart—say, 10 years.

“Thanks to this meme, there’s now a very large dataset of carefully curated photos of people from roughly 10 years ago and now,” O’Neill added.

Amy Webb, a professor of strategic foresight at New York University and founder of The Future Today Institute, called the 10-Year Challenge “a perfect storm for machine learning.”

“It presented Facebook with a terrified opportunity to learn, to train their systems to better recognize small changes” in users’ appearances, Webb told CBS News.

Facebook responded to O’Neill’s alarm by tweeting that 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.”

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 (@facebook) January 16, 2019

Other critics say skeptics like O’Neill and Webb have good reason to worry given Facebook’s recent history of dubious data mining. Last year, the company was at the center of a global scandal when news broke that the UK-based political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica used a quizz app to gain unauthorized access to 87 million users’ data. User trust in Facebook collapsed in the wake of the scandal. An April 2018 study by the Ponemon Institute found that just 27 percent of respondents believed Facebook would protect their privacy, down from 79 percent in 2017.

(Image credit: Electronic Frontier Foundation)

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