The Viral ’10-Year Challenge’ May Be Mining Data To Teach Facial Recognition Algorithm, Tech Writer Says

Social media users sharing pictures for the “10-Year Challenge” may be doing more than just showing their friends how much they’ve aged in the past decade — they could be helping a facial recognition algorithm learn how to detect aging, one tech writer claims.

In recent weeks, the so-called #10YearChallenge has spread across social media, calling on users to post a picture from a decade ago (or their first-ever social media profile picture, in some cases) and compare it to their most recent photo to show how much — or how little — they’ve changed. The trend has attracted millions of submissions, including many from celebrities, but tech expert Kate O’Neill thinks there could be a much more insidious reason for the trend.

In a viral thread on Twitter, O’Neill suggested that the “10-Year Challenge” trend is really just a way for someone to teach a facial recognition algorithm on how to detect human aging.

O’Neill expanded on her theory in Wired, saying that the trend would make it easier to learn how to account for aging without having to make the algorithm sort through hundreds of old profile pictures. Instead, users make it easy by posting pictures exactly (for the most part) 10 years apart.

“Sure, you could mine Facebook for profile pictures and look at posting dates or EXIF data. But that whole set of profile pictures could end up generating a lot of useless noise,” she wrote. “People don’t reliably upload pictures in chronological order, and it’s not uncommon for users to post pictures of something other than themselves as a profile picture. A quick glance through my Facebook friends’ profile pictures shows a friend’s dog who just died, several cartoons, word images, abstract patterns, and more.”

Kate O’Neill is not the only person suggesting that there could be an ulterior motive to the “10-Year Challenge.” The New York Times explored the theory as well, jumping off of O’Neill’s article and adding a warning from information systems expert Lauren Rhue.

Rhue, a professor at the Wake Forest School of Business, said the “10-Year Challenge” highlights the dangers of giving up too much personal data to a social media company. She said there is a lack of transparency on how Facebook and other platforms are using this data, and in the past, it has been handed over to government agencies and law enforcement officials, bypassing the Fifth Amendment rights of Americans who readily give up information like biometric data and DNA.