Could the #10YearChallenge really be used against us?

A widely-circulated theory has been stumping the public as the viral meme gains pace: is this all an elaborate ploy by Facebook to harvest our data?

Mark Zuckerberg in 2009 and 2018. Bloomberg
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Your friends have probably done it. Celebrities are all doing it. You might have done it. The Burj Khalifa has even joined in.

As with most social media crazes, nobody knows quite when the #10yearchallenge began, or where the genesis is exactly - but it doesn't seem to be going away. At last count, the viral meme - in which a person posts pictures of themselves in 2009 alongside a picture from 2019 to highlight how much has changed (or, how filters were not as easily accessible back then) - had racked up close to four million posts on Instagram.

At first glance, it seems like a harmless enough opportunity for a person to take stock of their life, or a fairly innocuous display of a world focused on change through a purely aesthetic lens. But what if it isn't?

New York-based author and tech consultant Kate O'Neill sent out a tweet - which she has since described as "semi-sarcastic" - about a week ago, as the viral meme hit its stride: "Me 10 years ago: probably would have played along with the profile picture aging meme going around on Facebook and Instagram. Me now: ponders how all this data could be mined to train facial recognition algorithms on age progression and age recognition."

The question she posed was simple: can these pictures being posted by seemingly everyone on the internet, be used in a way that we didn't intend, or perhaps not know about?

As the tweet gained traction (it's now been retweeted 12,000 times), O'Neill elaborated further in a comment piece for US tech magazine Wired.

"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). 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," she wrote.

"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”).

"In other words, thanks to this meme, there’s now a very large dataset of carefully curated photos of people from roughly 10 years ago and now."

Rebuttals filled social media, arguing that the pictures were already public, and easily accessible for monolithic tech giants to harvest data from for, well, a decade. While that is the case - there certainly wasn't a carefully set out juxtaposition of then-and-now photos of people before, but we, as the public, are now handing that information out on a silver platter, O'Neill argued.

Her tweet wasn't intended to illicit fear into the hearts and minds of the public, nor was it an attempt to decry that the technology-induced end of the world is nigh. In fact, O'Neill noted that there were many ways such technology could aid society - for example, finding children who had been missing for years.

But the public were understandably stumped: could this seemingly harmful meme be used against us?

How to train your algorithm

The crux of O'Neill's theory was not nearly as doomsday-esque as some social media commentators made it out to be. At the end of the day, the argument is that some companies, Facebook for example, need to train facial recognition algorithms on things like age-progression and how people will look as they get older in order to advance their technology. To do so, they need a pretty hefty database full of people's pictures.

This, O'Neill argued, is where the #10yearchallenge came in.

"There are also applications of synthetically aging photographs, for example trying to give an accurate picture of what missing children would look like 10 or 15 years after they vanished," Adrian Evans, head of the department of electronic and electrical engineering at the University of Bath, UK, says.

"For this last example, a collection of matched 2009 vs 2019 photos of the same people would be a very useful resource for building a database for training and/or evaluating algorithms for this."

Evans said recognising people at different ages is a problem researchers had long grappled with in the past.

"For example, ears have been shown to retain the same shape throughout a person’s life, from babyhood to adulthood."

Facial recognition and data harvesting in the UAE

Sam Blatteis, chief executive of The Mena Catalysts, which advises technology companies on policy and government affairs in the region, doesn't think we should be deactivating our Facebook accounts just yet.

"It’s important to de-couple 'hype' from 'reality'," he says.

"The UAE has some of the most sophisticated data protection legislation in the Middle East and Africa. The country already has at least four data protection laws now in Dubai Health Authority, Ministry of Health and Prevention, DIFC, and ADGM, all designed to place the user back in control of their own data."

Blatteis argued that tech was spawning a shift in the “geography of economic opportunity”, pointing to the Information and Communications Technology sector and its role as a key engine in the UAE’s non-oil economic development. The nuclear tech sector in Al ­Gharbia was also creating hundreds of jobs and valuable training opportunities and work was being done in the Northern Emirates with user-friendly smart services.

However, he went on to note the incredible presence of Facebook in the region. "Facebook has had enormously high policy impact in the Middle East, whether it be entrepreneurship in Egypt or policymaker education in the Gulf," he says.

"There is a cold war unfolding between privacy and relevance across Middle Eastern geographies, platforms and products. Customers, thus far, demonstrate via their actions that the utility of Facebook is so great they are willing to make that trade-off."

Data breaches aren't uncommon for even the world's largest companies. In late 2018, international hotel group Marriott International said the privacy of about 500 million guests may have been compromised in a cyber attack. The attack was the biggest since the attack on Yahoo in 2013, which exposed all of its three billion users.

The average cost of data breaches in the Gulf region's two biggest economies – the UAE and Saudi Arabia – was $5.31 million in the first half of 2018, according to US-based research. The UAE witnessed one of the biggest data breaches of the decade in the first half of 2018, when ride-hailing firm Careem admitted the theft of personal data of up to 14 million of its customers.

"Data forms the bedrock of the wealth of nations, and safeguards on networks do need to be 'beefed up'," Blatteis says. "While it’s easy to be skeptical of all of Facebook’s self-promotion, fake news, and group think, it’s hard to deny that it nurtures relationships too. Data can have an impact on power, money and love – the fundamentals of the human narrative."

How to protect yourself against data harvesting

O'Neill herself isn't sure how to do so: "The main thing I can think to elaborate on is that I feel like perhaps the reason this whole issue struck a chord and resonated for people is because we have an overall fear of emerging technology, the future ahead of us, and the big changes in store," O'Neill told The National.

"I didn’t want for this whole discussion to be consumed with fear and panic – I’ve tried to inject a dose of optimism in with the pragmatic view. For example, I believe technology can do amazing things for humanity, for quality of human life, for our meaningful and memorable and fulfilling experiences. But, in order for that to happen, we need to deepen our sophistication about data and our relationship to technology, and proceed with greater awareness of how technology could go wrong."

O'Neill said it was important for social media users to be more aware of our participation in social memes and games that ask us to share specific kinds of content. People could also consider whether to disable automatic facial tagging on Facebook and other platforms. All you need to do is change your settings.

This is Facebook's own argument, in response to public backlash over O'Neill's theory, adding that users could turn facial recognition off at any time.

"This is a user-generated meme that went viral on its own," Facebook said in a widely-circulated statement.

"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)."


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