17/01/2019 2:20 PM IST

Is Facebook's 10 Year Challenge Just A Ploy To Get Your Data?

Chances are that you’ve seen people posting pictures of themselves in 2009 and 2019. Harmless fun, or another way for people to learn from your personal data?

rajkummar_rao/ INSTAGRAM

BENGALURU, Karnataka —Have you taken the 10 year challenge? It’s been blowing up on social networks, from Twitter to Instagram, but nowhere more so than Facebook. That’s not surprising considering most of us still have huge numbers of photos, handily sorted into profile photos uploaded over time, and Facebook has been around as ‘the’ social network for the longest.

Participating in the challenge just involves sharing two photos of yourself, one from now, and one from ten years ago. At first glance, it certainly seems pretty harmless, with people putting up photos showing how dorky they used to be, or how hard age has hit them.

A lot of celebrities have gotten into the act, which has probably helped things go viral. Some shared jokes, like putting up the same picture twice, or using another celebrities picture for one half of the challenge, and a lot of the rest of us have also been doing similar things.

In short, it’s been a viral Internet thing that’s been a lot of fun for many people.

But maybe it’s not so simple. After all, it’s best to remember the oft-repeated maxim of life on the Internet. “When you’re using something for free, you are the product.”

If nothing is free on the Internet, how are you paying for the 10 year challenge?

Training data for algorithms?

Kate O’Neill, founder of KO Insights and the author of Tech Humanist and Pixels and Place, jokingly tweeted that this data could be mined to train facial recognition algorithms on age progression and age recognition. Her tweet went viral, and prompted some more detailed thinking, outlined in a piece for Wired.

“I knew the facial recognition scenario was broadly plausible and indicative of a trend that people should be aware of. It’s worth considering the depth and breadth of the personal data we share without reservations,” O’Neill wrote.

A common counterargument to her tweet was that Facebook already has this data, as most of us have been uploading photos there for years, and so a viral challenge like this could hardly help it to train its algorithms.

O’Neill however posited that timestamps aren’t always a useful way to tell when a photo was taken, and even the metadata attached to the pictures themselves can give inaccurate information. Therefore, she noted, having a person manually sort this out would be more useful.

At the same time, the noise generated by people who are joking with the challenge, such as posting someone else’s picture or a cartoon or animal, would be easy to sort out using some basic filtering techniques.

While this all makes sense however, it’s important to note that there is no proof that this is what is happening. For its part, Facebook has denied any involvement in the 10 year challenge.

“This is a user-generated meme that went viral on its own,” a Facebook spokesperson responded. “Facebook did not start this trend, and the meme uses photos that already exist on Facebook. 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.”

Progression algorithms already exist

Another reason to think that this viral challenge is not something a company devised to gather user data is because real age progression software already exists. Here’s an article in ABC News, ironically from 10 years ago, which includes several examples of how images generated by specially created age progression software, were used to find missing children. This Reddit thread has more examples.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that Facebook doesn’t want to train its own algorithms and wouldn’t be above making use of data in this manner—the company has given misleading statements so many times now that it’s hard to take anything it says seriously—but it’s likely that the capability is already available to Facebook, without having to create a viral challenge to gather more information.

However, by bringing up the question, O’Neill makes one very important point—that we all need to think more carefully about how and why we share the personal information that we choose to upload to the Internet. Memes and games are a great way of mining personal information—the data gathered by Cambridge Analytica to do political analysis came by way of a personality quiz.

That’s not to say that there’s something underhand or calculated about the spread of the 10 year challenge. But people definitely need to start to reflect on how they’re sharing their data, and why.