Is there a conspiracy going on here?
Over the past few weeks, there’s been a popular trend on social media called the #TenYearChallenge or “How Hard Did Aging Hit You” where people have been sharing photos of themselves from 2009 and 2019 to show how much they have (or haven’t) aged.
— bridget (@bridgetxwhite) January 15, 2019\n
\n— Kelly O'Donnell (@KellyO) January 15, 2019\n
The trend has also inspired a ton of great jokes.
Me in 2009 vs Me in 2019 pic.twitter.com/aypGFyER1q— jon (@prasejeebus) January 13, 2019\n
Me in 2009 vs 2019 pic.twitter.com/x1apTdhFvx— Lauren Duca (@laurenduca) January 13, 2019\n
However, things have changed over the past ten years. Bill Cosby is no longer “America’s dad,” Donald Trump isn’t best known as the star of “The Apprentice,” and Facebook isn’t just an innocent website for sharing pictures with your friends.
It’s now a massive platform that makes billions off your personal data.
For this reason, tech writer and Fortune 500 advisor Kate O’Neill has a much more suspicious view of the #TenYearChallenge.
Me 10 years ago: probably would have played along with the profile picture aging meme going around on Facebook and Instagram— Kate O'Neill (@kateo) January 12, 2019\n
Me now: ponders how all this data could be mined to train facial recognition algorithms on age progression and age recognition
O’Neill’s tweet quickly went viral so she elaborated on her theory the next day.
Most common rebuttal in my mentions: "That data is already available. Facebook's already got all the profile pictures."— Kate O'Neill (@kateo) January 13, 2019\n
Of course. And I'm not trying to say this is a crisis or that it's inherently dangerous. But just for fun, let's play this out.
Let's just imagine that you wanted to, say, train a facial recognition algorithm on age-related characteristics. You'd ideally want a broad and rigorous data set with lots of people's pictures. It'd help if you knew they were taken a fixed number of years apart — say 10 years.— Kate O'Neill (@kateo) January 13, 2019\n
Sure, you could mine Facebook for profile pictures and look at posting dates or EXIF data. But that's a lot of noise; it'd help if you had a clean then-and-now. What's more, the photo posting date and even EXIF data wouldn't always be reliable for when the pic was actually taken.— Kate O'Neill (@kateo) January 13, 2019\n
Why? People could have scanned offline photos. People might have uploaded pictures multiple times over years. Some platforms strip EXIF data for privacy; people's captions are helpfully adding that context back, as well as other context about where and how the pic was taken.— Kate O'Neill (@kateo) January 13, 2019\n
Thanks to this meme, there's now a very large data set of carefully curated photos of people from ~10 years ago and now. Is it bad that someone could use it to train a facial recognition algorithm? Not necessarily. It could help with finding missing kids, to cite one benign use.— Kate O'Neill (@kateo) January 13, 2019\n
Like most emerging technology, facial recognition's potential is mostly mundane: age recognition is probably most useful for targeted advertising. But also like most tech, there are chances of fraught consequences: it could someday factor into insurance assessment and healthcare.— Kate O'Neill (@kateo) January 13, 2019\n
I'm not saying anyone should panic or feel bad. It's simply worth becoming more mindful of how our data can be used. We don't need to be wary of everything; we just need to think critically, and learn more about the potential our data has at scale. We're all still learning.— Kate O'Neill (@kateo) January 13, 2019\n
To boil it all down: O’Neill says the #TenYearChallenge could potentially provide Facebook (or any media company) with an unbeliveable amount of data that can be used to train a facial recognition algorithm.
O’Neill expanded her theory further in a piece she wrote for Wired. In the article she explains that facial recognition technology isn’t such a bad thing right now, but it could be used for nefarious purposes down the road.
“Age progression could someday factor into insurance assessment and health care,” she wrote. “For example, if you seem to be aging faster than your cohorts, perhaps you’re not a very good insurance risk. You may pay more or be denied coverage.”
While Facebook probably isn’t using the #TenYearChallenge to advance facial recognition technology, O’Neill’s theory a great example of the potential consequences we face when using social media.
“My intent wasn’t to claim that the meme is inherently dangerous,” she wrote. “But 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.”
The #TenYearChallenge also a good reason to pause and reflect on how damn old were getting.
Remember, it’s never to late to start moisturizing.