Tech writer asks: 'Is Facebook's 10-year challenge using your face for its algorithm?'

    A photo of from 2009, and one from 2019. (Photos: Adam Forgie, KUTV)

    A technology writer with Wired magazine's website is asking a question many have been pondering: Is Facebook's 10-year challenge just a meme, or something else?

    Wired's Kate O'Neill posted a "semi-sarcastic" tweet, which went viral, pondering what exactly Facebook may be doing with your photos.

    "Me 10 years ago: probably would have played along with the profile picture aging meme going around on Facebook and Instagram," O'Neill tweeted. "Me now: ponders how all this data could be mined to train facial recognition algorithms on age progression and age recognition."

    "My flippant tweet began to pick up traction.," O'Neill said. "My intent wasn't to claim that the meme is inherently dangerous. But I knew the facial recognition scenario was broadly plausible."

    It's been no secret that Facebook uses facial recognition technology, but is the social media giant using your pictures to better use that technology to track how you, and others age?

    Well, that's unknown.

    Critics of O'Neill's tweet said Facebook already has access to your old photos.

    Not wanting to expose anyone else's 10-year challenge post, I've used my own photo from 10 years ago, and one recent as the main picture for this story.

    In her story, O'Neill decided to play her hypothetical scenario out.

    "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)," O'Neill said. "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."

    That would eliminate Facebook's major problem tracking your old photos. The company knows when you posted them, but not, necessarily, when the photos were taken.

    The 10-year challenge idea would take care of that problem, since you're telling them when the photos were taken, rather than posted.

    "Through the Facebook meme, most people have been helpfully adding that context back in (“me in 2008 and me in 2018”) as well as further info, in many cases, about where and how the pic was taken (“2008 at University of Whatever, taken by Joe; 2018 visiting New City for this year’s such-and-such event”)," O'Neill says.

    That means Facebook has a huge set of data with photos from millions of people taken 10 years ago and photos of the same people taken recently.

    Facebook denies participating, or having anything to do with the 10-year challenge meme.

    "This is a user-generated meme that went viral on its own," a Facebook spokesperson told O'Neill. "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.”

    While there's no evidence that Facebook is actually using your photos to update its facial recognition software, it's an important reminder that everything you post on social media is visible to the company, and those with whom you make the post available.

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