Could The 10-Year Challenge Be Putting Your Data At Risk?

Jan 20, 2019
Originally published on January 20, 2019 7:53 am

In the latest social media craze, people are sharing photos comparing how they looked 10 years ago with how they look today. Dubbed the "10-Year Challenge," the viral fad has attracted everyone from celebrities like Mariah Carey and Justin Baldoni, to environmentalists seeking to highlight the impacts of climate change.

The challenge is light-hearted, but you may want to think twice before joining in.

That's according to author and tech consultant Kate O'Neill, who warns that data from the challenge could be used by companies like Facebook or Amazon to train facial recognition algorithms.

In an interview with NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro, O'Neill offered varying scenarios — some good, some bad — of what could happen if companies are able to utilize these algorithms for things like age recognition and progression.

First, the good.

O'Neill speculated that facial recognition technology with age progression capabilities could help find missing kids, even after many years pass. She points out that facial recognition technology has already helped track down missing children — including in India, where police identified thousands of kids in just a few days using facial recognition.

Now, the bad news.

According to O'Neill, it's possible that data mined from the 10-Year Challenge could be used against us. She said it's possible age progression recognition technology would be used in health care and health insurance assessments. That may sound beneficial, but writing in Wired, O'Neill pointed out, "For example, if you seem to be aging faster than your cohorts, perhaps you're not a very good insurance risk. You may pay more or be denied coverage."

She argued that the negative ramifications of sharing our data is a very real possibility, pointing to past incidents — such as when data for as many as 87 million Facebook users was "improperly shared" with Cambridge Analytica, a data analytics firm used by the Trump campaign in 2016.

In a statement to Wired, Facebook said the 10-Year Challenge was a user-generated meme that they gained nothing from. Regardless, O'Neill preached caution.

"I want us to have fun and I want us to connect with each other. It just comes with the caution that it has this opportunity to make our lives more difficult and more challenging too," she told NPR. "As long as we're eyes wide open about the full spectrum of those potentials and those uses, then we're going to be in great shape to guide ourselves into the future."

In order to be cautious, she advised to be on the lookout for online games and memes that encourage people to participate in specific and particular ways.

"We may not have the sophistication to recognize the pattern now, but we should be gaining that sophistication, because these types of activities are going to be increasingly common," she said.

Some have dismissed O'Neill's warnings, she said, arguing that many of the photos posted in the challenge were already available online anyway. But, O'Neill pushed back on this dismissal, pointing out that participating in the challenge helps to verify and curate the data.

"That action made it particularly easy in theory for a hacker or someone who engineered a social engineering experiment to gather this data in a way that made it more useful," she said.

To combat data misuse, O'Neill argued that new regulatory approaches are needed to hold companies accountable for how they use data.

But, she also acknowledged that on the other side of the equation, there would be no data without the users sharing it.

"We need to understand the broader uses of emerging technology," she said. "Emerging technology relies on human data, and that means us."

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Have you posted a picture of yourself from 10 years ago, side by side with a picture of you today? It's a thing that's popular on Facebook and Instagram at the moment. And our next guest says that you should think twice before joining in on things like the 10-year challenge. Kate O'Neill explained her opinion on She's an author and tech consultant. And she joins us now from New York. Welcome.

KATE O'NEILL: Thank you.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So we should be clear Facebook says it didn't start this meme and that people are using photos already on Facebook. But you're saying it's more about how people should think about the potential for misuse.

O'NEILL: Yeah, exactly. The particular scenario I talked about in my Wired article was the potential that someone could mine that data and use it to train a facial recognition algorithm.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What makes you really nervous, though, about facial recognition technology in particular?

O'NEILL: Yeah, and I mentioned three types of scenarios. One I described as benign. And that's the scenario where, you know, it could be used to help with recognizing the progression of age in children who have been lost. So the police in New Delhi, India had used facial recognition technology in an experiment for just four days. And they recognized 3,000 kids who were missing. But the more mundane scenario and the more common scenario is advertising.

More than likely, this will become commonplace where displays can have some sort of camera or sensor that can recognize visual characteristics and serve up a more relevant ad, which will be better performing for the business who's advertising, which is potentially good, too, for us as as consumers - that we'll see more relevant messaging. But then as that data kind of blends with everything else that's downstream from that - all the location data, all of our movements and tracking through the world, all of our financial information, everything that's out there about us - that does start to pose, I think, some risky consequences.

And then there was one last scenario that I had talked about, which was the potential that the facial recognition, in particular age progression types of uses of facial recognition, could be used to, say, assess your risk for health characteristics and could say, maybe you're not a good candidate for health insurance.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's so hard, though, right? Because I see those memes pop up. And I'm like, oh. This is fun. Look at those pictures. It's so funny. Let me go - I was, in fact, just looking back at my Facebook pictures from 2008 and 2009 because I was like, oh, wow. I'd forgotten that happened. And yet we're having to learn how to protect ourselves more.

O'NEILL: You're right. And it is - and I absolutely want us to have fun. And I want us to connect with each other. And I think that's what the benefit of technology is. So, yeah - let's participate. Let's have fun. Let's communicate, stay connected with our friends and family. But I think one note of caution is we can look out for opportunities when we're being encouraged to tag photos of ourselves. That's one way we can opt out and maybe not always tag every photo with every face. We can not necessarily participate in every game or meme that asks us to provide data about ourselves in structured, specific ways.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I'm assuming that you didn't do the 10-year challenge.

O'NEILL: Well, my 10-year challenge response was the one that - that was the tweet that kind of started the whole thing that said, you know, 10 years ago, I probably would have participated and shared my photos. And now I look at it as an opportunity for harvesting all that data for a facial recognition training process.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Wah-wah-wah.

O'NEILL: Right.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Kate O'Neill. She's the author most recently of the book "Tech Humanist." Thank you so much.

O'NEILL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.