IF YOU LOGGED into Facebook or Instagram this week you probably couldn’t help but notice that everyone was posting photos of themselves 10 years ago alongside a contemporary snap. It’s called the ’10-Year Challenge’ and it’s gone outrageously viral.
But does it have a dark side?
With the meme at its peak, tech author Kate O’Neill posted what she has described as a “semi-sarcastic” tweet wondering how tech companies could mine the data generated by the trend to train facial recognition algorithms.
The tweet quickly picked up some virality of its own and has now been liked over 20,000 times.
The Fortune 500 advisor expounded on her theory in some follow-up tweets and an article on the tech website Wired.
In the piece O’Neill argues that the “clean, simple, helpfully-labeled” images taken 10 years apart would be a boon to someone, or some entity, that was interested in compiling a data set to develop facial recognition technology.
She also hinted that the trend could have been explicitly designed to gather the data, comparing it with the Cambridge Analytica scandal, in which the political consulting firm used a quiz to harvest the data of millions of Facebook users:
Even if this particular meme isn’t a case of social engineering, the past few years have been rife with examples of social games and memes designed to extract and collect data. Just think of the mass data extraction of more than 70 million American Facebook users performed by Cambridge Analytica.
Facebook has gone to the trouble of attempting to quash the theory.
“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,” it said in a statement.
“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,” it added.
Although O’Neill said that facial recognition technology will likely be most useful for targeted advertising, she emphasised that users should be careful of what they share on any online platform.
The broader message, removed from the specifics of any one meme or even any one social platform, is that humans are the richest data sources for most of the technology emerging in the world. We should know this, and proceed with due diligence and sophistication.
So, how realistic is this theory?
O’Neill comes with impressive credentials, authoring two books on the interaction between humans and technology and giving keynote speeches on digital strategy to some of the world’s biggest companies including Cisco, Coca-Cola and McDonalds.
Technology commentator Andy O’Donoghue jokingly described the social engineering scenario as “brilliant thinking”.
“Realistically, it is actually a solid basis for research,” he said to TheJournal.ie.
Explaining the mechanics of how developing the technology works he said it requires an enormous base of data, so the tranche of photos could undoubtedly be put to use by developers.
The obvious response to O’Neill’s ponderings, and many did say this to her, is that social media users already willingly hand over troves of photos to tech giants. Facebook has been using face recognition for years to make suggestions of who should be tagged in posts.
O’Neill points out that this is messy because people often upload older images so it can be difficult to know when the photos were actually taken.
However with the 10-Year Challenge people are providing a nice, clean data set of photos, spaced an even amount of years apart, often with some extra context added in the message accompanying the post.
“It’s a little dystopian and Big Brother state. But given what Facebook has done in recent years, who knows what they’re capable of,” O’Donoghue said.
He outlined that, while artificially intelligent facial recognition is a growth area of research and investment, for instance a school in China recently started analysing students’ behaviour by scanning their faces every 30 seconds, other forms of the technology have actually been in use, most notably by law enforcement agencies, for quite some time.
And that’s exactly where he believes any potential dark side of the technology lies, with police forces and other government agencies exploiting it to monitor citizens.
However, there’s just not enough evidence to buy into the big tech conspiracy theory just yet.
“You can connect the dots. But maybe it’s just a dotted line,” he concluded.