By Emily Wiest
Elm Staff Writer
In the past few weeks, a new viral trend has provoked a serious conversation on privacy and online data collection — for those who aren’t already familiar, the 10-Year Challenge asks participants to post comparison photos of themselves in 2009 and today, with the intent of showing how much they’ve changed in the past decade.
Unfortunately, some are speculating that the playful trend may have a darker purpose — namely, some are suspicious of the convenience of a broad data set including side-by-side comparisons of individuals on Facebook and Instagram, which the former owns. Such a data set is ideal for training facial recognition algorithms to better comprehend and predict changing human facial structure and features as people age. Not to mention, in training a software program, having a set time lapse is ideal for accuracy — for example, two side-by-side photographs of the same person 10 years apart.
While there have been some claims that Facebook had a hand in starting the trend with their software development in mind, the company officially denied this and insisted that they had nothing to do with its inception.
It’s a little unnerving to think we might have been manipulated with a meme, but there is a bigger point of discussion to come out of this incident — Facebook has been collecting our data and using facial recognition software for years. This is how they find and suggest possible friends and alert you when you’re in someone else’s picture, even when you haven’t been tagged. More than that, countless other types of personal information are continuously being collected and sold by the websites we visit. When online the general rule of thumb is that if you aren’t buying a product, you are the product (or at least your personal information is).
While the thought is disconcerting, why should we be particularly worried about Facebook using a trend to further develop its facial recognition software? While some note that such software could be a beneficial advancement — with possible uses in locating criminals or missing persons — others warn against mass surveillance and other dangerous practices that we might not fully understand yet.
Technology is rapidly advancing in ways we can’t even begin to comprehend. We don’t know what possible uses individuals or companies could have for our personal information in the future. Enhanced facial recognition is simply the latest method of data collection coming to the public eye among hundreds of other practices. With the commodification of personal data becoming such a commonplace (and even accepted) practice, should we be wary of a security nightmare lurking in the unseen future? Or is the convenience and entertainment we get from the internet worth it?