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Facebook Denies Using the 10 Year Challenge to Improve Their Facial Recognition Software

Bet you still used this as an excuse not to share that awful 2009 throwback though.

by Roisin Lanigan
23 January 2019, 6:30am

Sky News

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

Throwback Thursday is on a rampage. It’s taken over the other six days of the week and now your Instagram feed, Facebook timeline and -- once a sacred place for memes and angrily subtweeting about delayed trains -- even your Twitter is full of the 2k9 throwbacks of everyone you’ve ever met. The ten year challenge, where users post a photo of their 2009 blunder year selves compared to their 2019 glow-up, is everywhere.

And as with all modern crazes and fads, it wasn’t long before the ten year challenge became more than just a harmless trip down memory lane and instead became fodder for online conspiracy theorists. It all started when tech author Kate O’Neil wrote a tweet, openly pondering how the data we were willingly mining from our pasts and delivering on a silver platter to social media’s tech overlords would be used, and whether it would eventually become a tool to train facial recognition algorithms on age progression and age recognition.

Obviously, her tweet immediately went viral.

Suddenly everyone from the Guardian to the New York Times were weighing in on the worrying theory, which Kate later expanded in an article for Wired where she posited that we’d willingly given Facebook context about our pasts -- where we went to school, where we used to live -- and in some cases, even new photos if we scanned in snaps of us as children or family photos which weren’t online. Until now. “Thanks to this meme, there’s now a very large dataset of carefully curated photos of people from roughly 10 years ago and now.”

Facebook have responded by denying the theory entirely, obviously. In a statement posted to Twitter (lol), the company said that the 10 year challenge was just a harmless joke. “The 10 year challenge is a user-generated meme that started on its own, without our involvement,” they claim. “It’s evidence of the fun people have on Facebook, and that’s it.”

And really, that should be the end of it. But there’s something about Facebook’s denial that did nothing more than fuel the fire to more conspiracy and suspicion online. Perhaps it’s the nature of denials that makes people automatically more suspect about whether or not something is true, or perhaps it’s because we’re living in an era of fake news and shady Facebook owners dragged in front of government committees accused of hiding information from its users. Either way, we’ll never truly know whether 2019’s first official meme was a harmless user-generated challenge or another way for Mark Zuckerberg to keep tabs on us all. But if you were looking for an excuse to opt out of showing everyone online your embarrassing past, then here it is.

We never thought we’d say this, but we actually miss the times when Facebook was just your nan reposting Minion jokes.