This month, Facebook users around the world have been participating in the “10-Year Challenge” in which people are uploading and sharing two images of themselves, one from 2008 and one from 2018, in order to show how much they’ve changed in ten years. While on one hand it seems as if this is merely a user-generated meme, others aren’t so sure. Say, Facebook couldn’t be up to anything nefarious, could it? There’s no way one of the world’s largest repositories of personal information would want to use that information for global domination, to sell it to intelligence agencies, or to train the world’s most sophisticated artificial intelligence systems how to recognize our ugly mugs, right?
It’s hard to say. The links between Facebook, Big Data, and intelligence firms are murky. After all, what better way to surveil the public than by luring them into oversharing personal information, downloading apps that can access cameras and microphones at will, and store all of that information in easily searchable (and valuable) databases? Sheesh, what are we thinking?
Many observers have reported that the 10-Year Challenge could be a clever ruse to help train facial recognition systems how to track changes in individuals’ faces over time. That theory was first put forward on Twitter by tech writer Kate O’Neill, after which it was picked up by major news outlets around the world like Wired and the New York Times. O’Neill and others pointed out that while Facebook already has photographs of you from 2008 and 2018 (if you’ve been a user that long), the 10-Year Challenge provides a much cleaner data set for facial recognition AI to easily analyze – that is, if any of them are looking at these images.
Which many of them most certainly are. We’d be foolish to think that they weren’t. Facebook, of course, says the challenge is “a user-generated meme that started on its own without our involvement” and that the challenge is nothing but “evidence of the fun people have on Facebook, that’s it.” While that may be true, just think about all of the law enforcement and intelligence agencies which have access to Facebook’s data – make that our data. Who knows what they’re doing with it? While there’s no proof that the 10-Year Challenge is part of a sophisticated facial recognition program, it’s certainly possible (if not probable).
Is Facebook merely a massive experiment to see just how much information hapless rubes will share with police, spies, and nefarious non-governmental intelligence agencies, or a harmless way to connect with friends and family?
Let’s go with “both.” Welcome to the Panopticon.