Facial Recognition Software: Is the “10 Year Challenge” All That Harmless?

If you've been on Facebook or Twitter or Instagram in the past few weeks, you've likely been bombarded by a lot of the same posts: "2009 to 2019: Haven't I glowed up?" "I've changed so much over the last decade!" "Wow, I'm so different now!" These are accompanied with pictures from either end of the decade, as we get to marvel at the stunning growth we've all experienced. But is something more menacing hiding behind the scenes? Is the #10yearchallenge so innocuous? Or is it all part of a machine learning project to aid facial recognition software?

Generally speaking, it's probably not best to assume a grand conspiracy is responsible for a trend occurring on social media. I don't think that's necessarily the case here. But, it seems very convenient to me that in a world where facial recognition software is on the rise, people are curating hundreds of thousands of posts with side by side examples of how faces age. If I were a scientist trying to teach a bot how to judge facial aging, it would be hard not to take advantage of the sheer volume of data available.

Wired touched on this in January, as a similar challenge went viral (really an indictment of how often we recycle this kind of "content"), and while that writer didn't believe in a grand conspiracy either, it was noted how easy this trend would be to exploit. "...Thanks to this meme, there’s now a very large dataset of carefully curated photos of people from roughly 10 years ago and now." That dataset isn't so innocuous in the wake of constant news of data exploitation by firms like Cambridge Analytica.

Maybe this is happening right now, maybe it isn't, and quite frankly, the data would all be readily available anyway, but it's a trend worth monitoring. It's not far-fetched to think that there's a possibility for security issues present. This is the sacrifice we have to make as a part of a social network, but I'm not sure this sacrifice is made readily apparent often enough. People don't think of the potential uses of the pictures they upload with no ulterior motives. We've written before about that sacrifice we have to make, but it's a sobering reality to face it. While it may seem to be an Orwellian nightmare, this is the world we live in now. Facebook and Twitter and Instagram serve as veritable prison yards where the data processors can see us all at all times. That doesn't have to be good or bad. It's just reality.

With the rise of increasingly sophisticated technology, we'll have to prepare to think of ways our data can be used beyond what seems conceivable. Aside from legislation like GDPR and CCPA becoming nationally prevalent (it should, and likely will), it's going to take abstract thinking from every user of every platform. Your data can be used in ways beyond your imagination. Welcome to the panopticon.

Tucker Partridge is a graduate of the University of Arkansas, and a newly minted Bay Area resident. He is a professional marketing associate, a semi-professional comedian, and an amateur trivia enthusiast.