Somebody's Watching You

Decade Dangers


Every now and then, the internet graces us with a new way to explore our own mortality. Take Facebook’s “10-Year Challenge,” for example. Doing a close-read of how much you’ve aged in the past decade doesn’t sound all that fun, but it’s all the rage right now, and Facebook, Instagram, and even Twitter are filled with side-by-side comparisons of users with their decade-older selves.

Cute, right?

Here’s the thing: Imagine you wanted to train a facial-recognition algorithm on age progression (you might; we don’t judge). You’d need a huge dataset of age comparisons from a vast array of subjects, and that would be phenomenally difficult to get.

You could comb through thousands of Facebook images, filtering out the 99% of photos that didn’t suit your purposes, then take the tiny few that did, and train your (possibly nefarious) AI to…do whatever it was going to do. 

Tiring, but possible.

OR, you could present to the world a hella fun time-waster where you get MILLIONS of people to voluntarily upload photographs of themselves taken a predetermined number of years apart, and then just use those data.

Easy peasy. 

Now there is no evidence Facebook engineered this game to be any kind of facial-recognition gambit. In fact, as Slate puts it:

Most companies that employ facial recognition technology, including Facebook, find it useful for matching images of people with their identities. Quantity is usually more important than age separation in this case. “For an entity like Facebook … the more images of a person you can get, the more effectively you can build a profile for them,” says Jake Laperruque, who serves as senior counsel at the Constitution Project and does work with facial recognition and privacy. “[Facebook] already has a mass database of photos, which is what they really want.” He also noted that recent pictures would be more useful.”


They also note, somewhat ominously, that if Facebook were building an age-progression machine-learning system, they certainly already have. Cue nervous laughter.

So maybe it’s totally harmless. But the fact that we’re so weirded out by it, and by no means alone in our distrust, is a sign of how tentative our grasp on our own privacy has become.
As incredible as social media is, and as rewarding as it is to be able to share yourself (and everyone else), there’s a trade-off. You are no longer entirely yours.

Still. You looked adorable as a teenager. At least that’s what our AI says.

Big Brother in 60 Seconds

Speaking of (maybe) trading your privacy for 60 seconds of fun, let’s talk about TikTok.

When Vine died, we lost the source of some of the most absurd, iconic memes to ever grace the interwebs. But then TikTok emerged from the shadows, and all was joyous again.

But, oh wait…maybe TikTok is an awful, insidious data miner, hoovering up your information and sending it to China. Or at least that’s what a new class-action lawsuit alleges.

The suit, filed in California, claims:

“[TikTok] has acquired one of the largest installed user bases in the country on the strength of fun activities like dancing, lip-syncing, and stunts. Unknown to its users, however, is that TikTok also includes Chinese surveillance software. TikTok clandestinely has vacuumed up and transferred to servers in China vast quantities of private and personally identifiable user data that can be employed to identify, profile, and track the location and activities of users in the United States now and in the future.”

Is there any validity to the claim? Maybe not anymore. In the wake of a U.S. national security panel’s investigation into the safety of personal data shared with and transmitted through the app, TikTok parent company ByteDance has made huge efforts to separate TikTok operations from the rest of its Chinese operations. 

According to Reuters, “the Chinese technology company is seeking to provide assurances to the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) that personal data held by TikTok, which is widely popular with U.S. teenagers, is stored securely in the United States and will not be compromised by Chinese authorities.”

And honestly, it isn’t clear if the privacy concern was based on extant issues or just trade-war mistrust, but the California lawsuit alleges the app opened an account without user knowledge, and created a file that contained biometrics, personally identifiable data, and videos that were not uploaded to the service.

Maybe. Honestly, that sounds a little unlikely to us.

But if you’re nervous, you can just bask in complication after compilation of (probably NSFW) Vine memories. 


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