After last year’s Facebook data collection scandal, concerns of online privacy in digital spaces dominated the news for weeks on end. Then, it got out that Facebook not only collects data on users that don’t even have accounts and that millions of users’ data ended up in the hands of a political consultancy called Cambridge Analytica, which held the Trump 2016 campaign as a client.

In the aftermath, you may have noticed that you get a “this site collects cookies” notification whenever you’re visiting a new website. Though there are ways to use your browser settings to delete cookies or limit advertising, Facebook has been particularly targeted because of its massive influence. It’s easy to say it’s for “security reasons” that they collect so much data without follow-up or further explanation.

But what about the information that we give up willingly? We use social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc as public spaces when they are private companies. They don’t need to dig deep to find our groups, interests, phone numbers, location, etc – we freely give it.

And this has raised concerns about the #10YearChallenge, an online meme that went viral where users upload photos of themselves now versus 10 years ago (for example, 2008 to 2018). While some criticize those worried about this trend for being anti-social media, overly paranoid, or point out that those photos were already available and uploaded on Facebook anyways, the direct side-by-side comparison with context and dates does raise some potentially alarming questions.

As Facebook (who now owns Instagram) makes most of their money from advertising, they benefit from having as targeted and accurate information about their users as possible. 

This particular game has raised concerns about this data being used for facial recognition, age recognition, and age progression (which projects how someone might look as they get older). We have created millions of direct before-and-after photos, labeled the years they were taken, and all neatly organized in one hashtag.

Facebook denies creating or having any part in the creation of the #10YearChallenge, saying it was a user-generated meme that went viral. However, that doesn’t mean that there haven’t been plenty of memes and games created to collect data.

Some uses of facial recognition and age progression can generally be agreed on to be positive things (for example, finding missing children years after they disappeared or catching a criminal who was seen in security footage), but the issue is lack of permission. It’s one thing to knowingly upload before-and-after photos to a project that wants to improve age progression to find missing kids and another to participate in a game that advertisers use to detect your age and target you more effectively.

While there isn’t much we can do if we as humans want to participate at all in the digital world, there are ways to try and protect yourself and information. Not using social media, or adjusting your privacy settings, is a start. Deleting your cookies and installing an ad blocker is another.  Avoid filling out personal information for companies or websites you don’t completely trust (even “harmless” facebook quizzes).

The main thing is being aware of the data that we create and how it could be used (possible against us). For example, there are concerns about all the different ways that healthcare companies are coming up with to deny coverage or to charge certain people more.

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