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Digital dystopia

  • Published at 11:18 pm January 25th, 2019
Digital dystopia
Photo: Courtesy

Is the ‘10 year challenge’ a ploy to mine data?

It’s really surprising how social networking sites can be exploited to breach user data and to target consumers where it initially began with a motive to connect people. Most of the users, regardless of their geographical location, use social media for entertainment while being completely oblivious about the usage of the personal data they’re sharing.

Trends like #throwbackThursday, #flashbackFriday and #10yearchallenge took social media giants unprecedentedly this year. People are posting photos or using photo collage apps to post photos comparing the one taken in 2019 with a photo from 2009. People from all around the world, including celebrities like Reese Witherspoon and Miley Cyrus, have participated in this challenge which was also trending as the “grow up challenge” or “2009 vs 2019 challenge”.

Other critics like Professor Amy Webb of NYU Stern School of Business characterized the ‘photo challenge’ as "a perfect storm for machine learning," for Facebook. Webb, who has authored an upcoming book about how artificial intelligence can manipulate humans, told CBS News that this challenge “...presented Facebook with a terrifying opportunity to learn and to train their systems to better recognize small changes in users' appearances.”

This led many to believe that Facebook intentionally started the campaign to develop its AI for face recognition which they have been working on for quite a while now. 

For machine learning, it is crucial to input a rigorous amount of data in context for which Facebook might have started the challenge in order to get relatively accurate information of how people look now versus 10 years back. In many cases, people added further information like time & place which made things more precise.

Facebook however denied any involvement in generating the trend. “This is a user-generated meme that went viral on its own. 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). As a reminder, Facebook users can choose to turn facial recognition on or off at any time,” it said on Twitter. 

But if Facebook is using photos that already exist on its platform, why did they start the campaign in the first place? Kate O’Neil, the writer of the Wired article explained that the existence of the images on Facebook’s system does not mean that Facebook will not benefit from a mass participation from users essentially categorizing the data for the company. 

“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. 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,” O’Neil wrote. 

This gives Facebook a robust amount of accuracy with the obtained data and the users participating in the challenge helps with this tremendously. 

Facebook may use these data for targeted advertising and for personalized experiences but what if this data goes outside the platform? This can be entirely possible just like Amazon sold similar data to the government and law enforcement agencies and Google facing a lawsuit for scanning and saving biometric data of a woman by a Google photos user.

It would have been very shocking if this was three or four years back. But after the exploitation of Facebook's platform by Cambridge Analytica where they mined and used data for political purposes of more than 70 million Facebook users and Russian propagandists spreading misinformation regarding 2016 US presidential election, it’s hard to tell if the information we’ve provided is in safe hands. Although Facebook has said that they have no intentions of making the data go outside the platform, it is still questionable as there is no law regarding this.

With increasing importance of user data, the need for vigilance from users is becoming more important than ever. The data users provide is the fuel for tech companies like Facebook and Google. The World Wide Web, which emerged as a blessing, can now act as a trap that can hold users hostage.