#10yearchallenge: Facebook denies it's a plot to train its facial recognition technology

Facebook has denied starting a popular internet meme so it can improve its facial recognition technology.

In recent days the #10yearchallenge has taken social media by storm, with users posting photos of themselves from 2009 and today to show off how they've changed - or haven't, in some lucky cases. Variations on the hashtag include #2009vs2019 and #2009to2019.

Celebrities including Ellen DeGeneres, Reese Witherspoon and Nicki Minaj have taken part, and it's also been adopted by groups highlighting changes in the world over the last decade - showing off the devastation in Syria and the Earth's rising temperature, for example.

But it's been suggested the biggest network of them all, Facebook, is behind it all. The conspiracy theory appears to have started with an observation by tech author Kate O'Neill.

"Me 10 years ago: probably would have played along with the profile picture aging meme going around on Facebook and Instagram," she wrote on Twitter. "Me now: ponders how all this data could be mined to train facial recognition algorithms on age progression and age recognition."

Ms O'Neill's self-described "flippant tweet" took off, and soon made its way to the conspiracy section of popular web forum Reddit.

"Crowdsourcing is exactly how you train an [artificial intelligence]", wrote one person, claiming to be a "software developer with experience in AI and facial recognition".

"You make an app, like a chat bot or meme creator and get people to see how good it is. Only it doesn't actually work at first, the users are actually doing the training. Microsoft did exactly this… Google Photos do this too. It's no secret."

Ms O'Neill said she didn't mean to spark a conspiracy theory, later saying people shouldn't assume it's a Facebook plot.

"My intent wasn't to claim that the meme is inherently dangerous," she wrote in a piece for tech magazine Wired. "But I knew the facial recognition scenario was broadly plausible and indicative of a trend that people should be aware of. It's worth considering the depth and breadth of the personal data we share without reservations."

Facebook says it's not behind the biggest meme of 2019 to date.

"The 10-year challenge is a user-generated meme that started on its own, without our involvement," it said on its Twitter account. "It's evidence of the fun people have on Facebook, and that's it."

In a separate statement to Wired, Facebook said it "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."

Facebook's privacy settings and data collection has been a constant source of criticism over the last decade, perhaps culminating in the Cambridge Analytica scandal and alleged interference in the 2016 US elections by Russian trolls.


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