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Is Facebook's '10 Year Challenge' just harmless nostalgia, or have we all been fooled?

Over the past few days, millions of people have been sharing decade-old photos of themselves to Facebook, as part of a viral meme dubbed ‘The Ten Year Challenge‘. A bit of nostalgia, some innocent fun amid the rolling outrage and misery of your newsfeed.

Or is it?

Tech journalist, Kate O’Neill, has posed a theory that’s causing people to think twice before taking part in the hashtag-driven gag.

“Me 10 years ago: probably would have played along with the profile picture ageing meme going around on Facebook and Instagram,” she tweeted.

“Me now: ponders how all this data could be mined to train facial recognition algorithms on age progression and age recognition.”

Sorry… what now?

After O’Neill’s tweet gained traction, she fleshed out the idea via a piece for Wired.

“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),” she wrote. “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.”

While yes, Facebook already has access to those images, according to her theory, by participating in the #tenyearchallenge we saved them a whole lot of work. Rather than sifting through our back-catalogue of cat photos and humble-brag holiday pictures to get them, we delivered exactly what they were looking for.

But what’s the purpose of that kind of technology? Why would they want it?

 

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Time sure does fly when you are having fun!! #10YearChallenge

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Well, O’Neill touched on possible applications ranging from targeted advertising (e.g. ad displays that adapt depending on the age of the person looking at them), to law enforcement, and even potential for use in insurance assessments.

Naturally, Facebook has dismissed the theory and denied playing any role in creating the challenge.

“This is a user-generated meme that went viral on its own. Facebook did not start this trend, and the meme uses photos that already exist on Facebook,” the company told CBS. “Facebook gains nothing from this meme (besides reminding us of the questionable fashion trends of 2009). As a reminder, Facebook users can choose to turn facial recognition on or off at any time.”

But you can hardly blame people for being suspicious. Over the past few years, Facebook has been beleaguered by privacy breaches and questions around its use of user data. The most significant of which saw founder Mark Zuckerberg front US Congress to explain why political consulting firm Cambridge-Analytica harvested the personal information of tens of millions of Facebook users without their consent. This data was used for the political campaigns of Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, and in the Brexit vote.

Facebook has also been using facial-recognition technology for years to help users easily tag their friends in uploaded photos.

Even if O’Neill is wrong, New York University futurist Amy Webb, argues that it’s worth raising the question.

“It’s good that finally, even though it took a couple days, eventually [we had] the conversation of, ‘Wait a minute, did we just play into the hands of the tech giants again?'” she told CBS. “At least that was part of the conversation.”

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