Memes are a big part of the web, especially on social media, and they serve different purposes. Humor is the primary reason memes exist, obviously, but they can also be used to make political statements and to share satirical thoughts. Could they also be used to harvest user data, though? That is a question that has been raised in response to the 10-year profile picture challenge that has gone viral on Facebook.
You have probably seen this one already—the ‘challenge’ is to post your first profile picture alongside your most recent one to compare how much you have changed over the years. Oftentimes, there is a fixed data applied to the challenge, usually 10 years, though some participants have dug up even older photos.
It’s all in good fun, right? Probably. Maybe. Er, we hope so? Kate O’Neill at Wired half-joked on Twitter that she “probably would have played along with the profile picture aging meme going around on Facebook and Instatram,” but now she “ponders how all this data could be mined to train facial recognition algorithms on age progression and age recognition.” She then wrote an article on the topic.
Could that be what is actually going on? That depends on the size of your tinfoil hat, or from the opposite perspective, the level of common sense you have. Those in the former camp point out that Facebook already has this data—it can sort through your uploaded photos and compare the time stamps and EXIF data, and then use that information to train its AI algorithms.
There is also the issue of people posting false pictures of themselves, or using photos that were scanned or uploaded multiple times, all of which results in less-than-reliable EXIF data (assuming it wasn’t scraped out in the first place).
Nevertheless, there is still the possibility that Facebook is using this recent influx of data, and that it might even be behind the whole thing. All of the above caveats are true, but what would be handy about the recent uploads is the information that people attach to their pics, such as saying, “This is me in 2009 and this is me in 2019.” Image recognition schemes could sort through fake submissions, like pictures of cartoons and animals in place of an actual profile shot.
I’m skeptical that Facebook is behind all this as a way to train its AI—often times the simplest explanation is the right one, and in this case, I think it’s simply a meme that went viral. I could also be naive in that thinking, though. Consider that Facebook’s history of respecting its users’ privacy is not all that great.
We all remember the Cambridge Analytica scandal, which prompted Congress to summon Mark Zuckerberg to testify on all things related to Facebook. But let’s also remember that in 2014, Facebook fessed up to participating in a secret psychology experiment in which it manipulated the feeds of nearly 700,000 users to see what effect it would have on people’s emotions.
So, is the profile challenge just a fun meme, or part of something bigger? That’s a good question, and if you even have to ask, you might want to consider not participating.