018: Big Brother and the “Online Challenge”

Special Note: This episode is running out of order since it’s very timely, and becoming a news story. It was recorded yesterday, after Episode 17 was recorded (as promised, that one is about how to develop Uncommon Sense). So I’m swapping the order, putting #18 out not only before #17, but on Thursday instead of next Monday. Episode 17 will come out at the “regular time” on January 28.

In This Episode: The “challenges” we see on Facebook: just a bit of fun? A way to share of yourself to your friends? But when you “challenge” the challenge by applying some Uncommon Sense, you might not want to play along.

018: Big Brother and the “Online Challenge”

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018: Big Brother and the “Online Challenge”
Zuckerberg in his college days, and more recently (Later photo: Anthony Quintano CCby2.0)


The “challenges” we see on Facebook: just a bit of fun? A way to share of yourself to your friends? As I record this, the latest “challenge” on Facebook is sweeping the social platform: post your photo from 10 years ago next to one from now to show how you’ve changed in a decade. Sounds like fun: “everybody” is doing it! But when you “challenge” the challenge by applying some Uncommon Sense, you might not want to play along.

Welcome to Uncommon Sense, I’m Randy Cassingham.

We never know where these things start: someone gets an idea, posts it, and it resonates with their friends: they post it too, and — with the “seven degrees of separation” concept fully engaged — before long “everyone” sees it. At least, everyone on that particular social platform. Although, such challenges can spread between platforms too: this one seems to be running on Instagram too, which is a subsidiary of Facebook, and Twitter, which isn’t a subsidiary of Facebook …yet.

No, I’m not talking about the incredibly obliviotic “Bird Box Challenge” that’s also been going on lately: that’s based on the horror film Bird Box, a “Netflix Original” released in December about people driven to suicide by seeing …something!, so the characters blindfold themselves as they move around — a cinematic exploration of the blind leading the blind. Great: in our “monkey see, monkey do” culture?!

Indeed: the bird-brained online “challenge” is to do it in real life — what can be the harm in that?! Well, in Layton Utah, a 17-year-old girl tried it …while driving a pickup truck. With another teen in the passenger seat.

Of course you know what happened: “She ended up losing control of her car and skidded into the westbound lanes of Layton Parkway,” said police lieutenant Travis Lyman, “and hit another car, and ended up hitting a light pole as well.” The only thing the lieutenant got wrong: the girl didn’t “end up losing control”: once she covered her eyes while behind the wheel of a moving vehicle, she didn’t have any control to lose. The only astounding twist to this story is that no one was injured, though police have asked the district attorney’s office to charge the girl with reckless driving. There are photos of the aftermath on the Show Page, which the police in the pretty small town in Utah between Salt Lake City and Ogden, posted on Twitter.

So as you can understand, there’s no “challenge” so outrageous that someone won’t agree to try it.

With that in mind, the “10 Year Photo Challenge” sweeping Facebook seems pretty tame: post a photo of yourself from 10 years ago next to one of you now. But someone thought about the 10 Year Photo Challenge. On January 12th, Kate O’Neill posted this on Twitter, in words, not a photo:

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

She called it a “semi-sarcastic” and “flippant tweet,” but it woke a lot of people up. Here’s her theory:

Imagine that you wanted to train a facial recognition algorithm on age-related characteristics and, more specifically, on age progression (e.g., how people are likely to look as they get older). Ideally, you’d want a broad and rigorous dataset with lots of people’s pictures. It would help if you knew they were taken a fixed number of years apart — say, 10 years.

Of course she understands that in most cases, those photos are already posted on Facebook, and Facebook “knows” the exact date and time they were uploaded. So is this a plausible scenario, or is she just being paranoid?

“My intent wasn’t to claim that the meme is inherently dangerous,” she said. “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.”

Clearly, a fun “challenge” is a great way to get people to post photos of themselves, clearly labeled with dates. “In other words,” O’Neill says, “it would help if you had a clean, simple, helpfully labeled set of then-and-now photos.” to feed such an algorithm.

And it’s definitely not paranoia when you consider Facebook’s history. Let’s start with Facebook’s denial over this particular challenge:

Facebook did not start this trend, and the meme uses photos that already exist on Facebook. Facebook 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.

So what do I mean about “Facebook’s history”? In 2009, Facebook wasn’t concentrating on your “questionable fashion” choices. The Federal Trade Commission found that Facebook made public information that its users had specifically marked private on their Facebook pages. Facebook said all the right things about your private information being private, but that was a lie: they allowed advertisers to access personally identifiable information, even though the company “long maintained that it does not share personal data with advertisers,” the New York Times reported at the time.

The FTC didn’t fine Facebook, but in a 2011 consent decree, Facebook agreed to keep private the information you posted marked “friends only” unless it had prior, “affirmative express consent” from users to share their information, or it would submit to a penalty of $16,000 a day for each count of breaches in its privacy guarantees which, multiplied by the hundreds of millions of Facebook users, could possibly put the company on the hook for billions of dollars in fines. Upon signing this agreement, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg posted a massive mea culpa, saying that his company made “a bunch of mistakes” in letting advertisers have such private information.

“Facebook has always been committed to being transparent about the information you have stored with us,” he wrote on the site, “and we have led the Internet in building tools to give people the ability to see and control what they share.”

Uh huh.

Commenting on the FTC order, Marc Rotenberg, the executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, or “EPIC”, which — along with other organizations — filed the complaint with the FTC which led to its investigation of Facebook, said, “We do not have in the United States a comprehensive privacy framework. There is always a risk other companies will come along and create new problems.”

Who needs other companies to come along? Despite the 2011 consent decree, Facebook has been caught with its pants down again and again since then. Remember the Cambridge Analytica scandal? That company was not only behind the passage of the U.K.’s “Brexit” referendum to leave the European Union, but its harvested data was used to target misinformation to voters in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The company got huge volumes of personal information about Facebook users who did not give any such “affirmative express consent.”

There have been other privacy breaches at Facebook: I’ll link to a report from Tech Republic that outlines some of the bigger ones. So when Facebook, in their denial that they started the “photo challenge,” didn’t deny they were harvesting the data now that it’s posted. “Facebook users can choose to turn facial recognition on or off at any time,” their statement said, but since when has Facebook followed its own promises in regards to your privacy?

But this begs the question: who the heck is Kate O’Neill? You might think she’s a highly experienced online security expert. She isn’t. She’s a corporate speaker on topics like “Tech Humanism: How Data and Technology Shape the Future of Meaningful Human Experiences”, and an author, most recently of the book, Tech Humanist: How you can make technology better for business and better for humans.

And that’s why I’m talking about this: you don’t have to be an online security expert to see how Facebook might capitalize on your private photographs: once you post them to Facebook — or someone else does — Facebook can, and probably will, exploit them to the fullest whether or not that violates your privacy, just as we’ve seen them do again and again.

Yet despite the way this sounds, this isn’t really meant to be a diatribe against Facebook. Rather, it’s what happens when you take a step back and think about the implications of an online “challenge.”

In his book 1984, George Orwell worried about government being a “Big Brother” who watches our every move in a bid to control humanity. Well, we did a pretty good job of keeping government out of our business, but we haven’t done much to keep corporations out of our business, as EPIC’s Marc Rotenberg pointed out.

Kate O’Neill applied Uncommon Sense to a seemingly fun online viral “challenge” — but the real “challenge” is to you to think about the implications of what you post online. It sure has me thinking about it: while I didn’t participate in the Photo Challenge, I know I’ve certainly shared too much information online. Information that big companies never forget. But thanks to O’Neill’s wake-up call, based entirely on her own Uncommon Sense mixed with her society-and-technology background, a lot of people are waking up to how pretty innocent-sounding fun things online have very broad, and sometimes very dark, implications.

One last thing: How did I find out about O’Neill’s wake-up call? After her tweet started, as she put it, to “pick up traction,” she wrote an Opinion piece for Wired Magazine, titled “Facebook’s ‘10 Year Challenge’ Is Just a Harmless Meme — Right?” Wired posted it on their site on January 16th. A few hours later, while perusing the suggested articles in the Google app on my phone while eating lunch, Google suggested that article to me … because it “knows” I’m interested in the intersection of technology and culture.

Which says something huge right there: Google — or really, its algorithms, which have no ethics or conscience — knew I’d be interested in that.

We don’t have a Big Brother: we have a lot of them. And they’re watching.

You can comment on this episode, and see the links to my sources, including O’Neill’s opinion piece, at thisistrue.com/podcast18

I’m Randy Cassingham … and I’ll talk at you later.

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11 Comments on “018: Big Brother and the “Online Challenge”

  1. I haven’t even listened to this one yet, but I’m aware of the “challenge” appearing today in my news. I’m reminded of something my mother used to say when I wanted to buy something that “everyone was getting”, or do something that “everyone was doing”. She put it very simply: “If everyone was jumping off the roof, would you do that too?”

    I got the point early.

  2. I would make a more extensive comment here but, “They are watching.” I am not a number and will not bow to the overloads of tech!

    With Randy’s extensive and incredibly deep online profile through hundreds of ‘This is True’ postings, it’s a wonder that these new tools do not choke on the amount of data that it has at its disposal. What is really scary is that it was able to parse all of that to provide a relevant tweet.

  3. I didn’t follow along and post the 10 year pics of myself for two reasons. I did enjoy looking at friends’ pictures and seeing how they changed. But I couldn’t get interested enough to take the time to dig out my own 10 year old profile pic (I’ve been on FB for 10 years). Also, I wondered who started this idea and why? Was it harmless? Or not? Thanks to you I’m questioning a lot more things in my life and wondering why. So thanks to you, I guess I’ve got more Uncommon Sense than I did before. Or at least I’m using some.

    As I argue in the next episode, it is definitely possible to develop Uncommon Sense — just as you’re realizing. -rc

  4. I tend to agree with Jeff Jarvis on this topic. Although I would say that the big Tech/social media companies have somewhat fouled their own nest already so it’s really no wonder there’s this kind of reaction.

    Facebook and Google have been able to determine age differential characters from infancy to old age for quite a while now — they don’t need a specific subset of data spanning just 10 years. This was made apparent to me just yesterday after I scanned a whole bunch of my wife’s family printed family album photos that featured her from birth to the age of 15. In each case Google was able to recognise her face, and the faces of her family, across a wide variety of ages. I thought this was quite impressive rather than nefarious.

    As Jeff points out, the Moral panic and distrust of Big Social (sown by the data grasping blunders of Mark Zukerberg) can have potential serious ramifications for free speech on the Internet. I think its time we all took a pill and recognised this for what it is, a harmless, fun game.

    Let’s be clear on my point: it’s not that this specific meme is nefarious, but rather it’s a head’s up to think about the ramifications of all such social media “challenges” and trends. A “quiz” asking for “fun details” like, say, your mother’s maiden name could just be a way to crack a bank account, which are often “secured” by a “password” consisting of your mother’s maiden name (just to name one example). Even if it isn’t, now your mother’s maiden name is out there for anyone else who wants to target you.

    As you infer, Zuckerberg isn’t our friend: he’s working on ways to exploit our personal information — and that’s just one of the “big brothers” I refer to. We want privacy, yet we toss our private information onto social platforms with nary a thought of that information now being permanently accessible to ever-more-powerful parsing algorithms that are (no paranoia) developing dossiers on us all. -rc

  5. I was listening to a story on NPR (National Public Radio) a few days ago, about Facebook and a tweak they were experimenting with: when a friend posts a picture of you that you didn’t like with a caption such as “embarrassing photo”, then a response box would appear on your page to the original poster where you could ask that the picture be taken down. They first investigated response rates from a rather aggressive message: “I don’t like that photo; take it down”, and then compared it with 20 or 30 different messages, from “please” take it down to many different iterations. And they did each one with not hundreds of people (involuntarily) in the test run for each iteration, but with THOUSANDS! And that is not even the most interesting or scary part of the story — the interview continued with the data analysts from Facebook, and the NPR interviewer asked “With all these experiments and tweaks going on at Facebook, what is the chance that any individual who posts on Facebook is an unknowing participant in some experiment you have going on?” And the REALLY scary answer was, “Probably 100%”.

    And that’s something they’ll admit to. Gives you pause, doesn’t it?! -rc

  6. “We want to thank you for participating in the 10 year challenge.”

    Very Truly Yours,

    😀 -rc

  7. I’m not paranoid, but I am a skeptic. Every time I see one of those “challenges” or “play alongs”, I think about what they might really be looking for. But the things that really irritate me are the posts and messages that get repeated over and over from friends, and start out with with something like, “I tried this and it really works….” The latest is how to see more than just 25 of your friend’s posts. Now, I like to think that I’ve got some pretty smart friends, so I can’t understand how they they think this is true. When I explain that it is not true, they will often say, “Well, I forwarded it just in case it was.”

    I think we are, for the most part, naive and want to believe that everyone is being honest.

    These games where you check off a list of things you’ve done; been arrested, flew in a plane, been to how many states, all start off with, “This will be fun, play along.” That always makes me suspicious, even though it is probably just harmless fun.

    It helps to be a little skeptical.

    It sure does. It’s obscenely lazy to “forward it just in case” it’s true: rather than take 30 seconds to research the truth (I’m fast: it only took me 10 seconds), they waste 30-90 seconds of everyone else’s time — hundreds to thousands of people — instead! That’s not being a “friend,” it’s being a jerk. -rc

  8. 10 year challenge criticism is nothing new. Twitter had something similar few years back, called Throwback Tuesday (or Thursday). Same basic principle, post old and current photos and say how old former is. And people claimed same thing, that this is used by various agencies to develop software that will “see” how you aged so far and then predict how you will age in future. Of course back then it was “government”, now it’s Facebook.

    And back then people weren’t using this theory to promote their book either. 🙂

  9. My husband started in IT back in 1967 when he learned programming at the IBM lab, in the day of not only punch cards, but they had to punch their own cards because the card punch machine (to type in your lines of code and each line would be punched on a new card automatically by the machine, like a fancy typewriter) hadn’t even been invented yet. So he’s been paranoid about the internet since he was on Arpanet. He actually had an Arpanet email address! I’ve never met anyone else who goes back quite that far.

    But I digress. I didn’t know him then, but in the nearly 24 years we’ve been married, I’ve picked up his online paranoia in large measure. I have a profile on Facebook, that has exactly one picture of me, my profile picture, which is minuscule. I have NEVER posted on my profile. I only go there to look at a couple of friends’ pictures of their pets, or when my cousin has news of her husband’s health (who’s been living with pancreatic cancer for well over 10 years now — he’s in that 5% that doesn’t die within 2 years, yay!). But again, I simply do not post. Ever. About anything.

    I also learned at least 15-20 years ago from my husband that Google knows EVERYTHING about you. Recently I read a story about a man who obtained all information Google had on him — they’ll give it to you if you ask them the right way — and it was incredibly long and detailed. They knew everything, absolutely everything! So I’ve stayed paranoid about posting any personal info online. I only allowed ONE picture of me to be posted, holding a quilt I’d sewn for a quilts-for-wounded-military group; it was on their website for a year or two and then disappeared, and I haven’t let another one be put up since. There aren’t many pictures of me from the last 20 years anyway; I prefer to be behind the camera, not in front of it. It’s paid off.

    A good friend of ours about 10 years ago decided she would stop using Google or its subsidiary companies completely because she was afraid they would learn everything about her. My husband and I agreed she was WAY too late; Google already had as much information on her as it was going to get. But we couldn’t persuade her of that. She refused to believe it. As far as I know, she’s still avoiding Google, for all the good it will do her.

    I learned from my husband to check my own name periodically to see what, if any, information is online about me. As a result of mimicking his paranoid habits, there’s virtually nothing, and I like it that way. I have a Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest accounts simply so I can read other peoples’ entries. Mine are blank accounts, no picture, no text, solely to have access. I think I commented once or twice on a friend’s post about a cute pet, but that was it here or there.

    Of course, as I learned a few years ago, there’s a marketing program, Acxiom, that has all the information about me gleaned via my shopping habits that I’m sure Google and Facebook have acquired in spite of my online paranoia. I discovered this program from a musician, Vienna Teng, who wrote a song to it that I discovered, “Hymn to Acxiom.” She has a friend whose husband works there, and in a live performance recorded and online said it was absolutely terrifying what it knew about her friends! So I assume they have everything about me, too, even though I’ve never KNOWINGLY interacted with it — but it’s behind so many online marketing websites that I’m sure I’ve got a huge entry in its database. One purchase online and my paranoia has been toast. So efforts to stay unknown online have all been for naught, as it turns out!

    Since I didn’t learn about Acxiom until it was far too late to do anything about it, at this point I think the only way to avoid being tracked by SOMETHING is to make all purchases in cash, never even turn on a computer or a phone or anything else electronic — become a genuine Luddite — and live in a cabin in the mountains somewhere with no contact with any type of publicly provided utility. Otherwise, you’re toast! So I’ve developed a fatalistic attitude about it. It’s the way our society is, and I’m too small by myself to change it. I just avoid putting any personal information anywhere deliberately, and call that the best I can do!


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