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Are Russians really stealing our faces?

In 2017, yet another image altering application was deployed for the Apple iOS and Google Android platforms. The app was called FaceApp. The app wasn’t extremely popular in early 2017; however, within a few months, the app drew much attention and heavy criticism. FaceApp is an application that transforms faces in photographs.  The software employs artificial intelligence to create remarkably realistic changes to faces.  In 2017, the app presented a “hot” transformation. The “hot” feature supposedly made the users’ faces appear more attractive.  But, instead, the app’s developers attracted criticism and were accused of racism – the app lightened the skin color of most dark-skinned users. The feature was renamed “spark” after drawing criticism and later removed completely. The founder of the company apologized for the situation and pledged to correct the issues with the underlying artificial intelligence systems. In August 2017, FaceApp revealed “ethnicity” filters, depicting “White”, “Black”, “Asian” and “Indian” as options for face transformations. Those filters were removed quickly by FaceApp as well.

The developer, Wireless Lab, continued working on the app.

After major updates to the app in July 2019, the popularity of the photo transformation program skyrocketed. Over 150 million users have downloaded the application in the past month; it’s the top app in 121 countries.

Riding a wave of celebrity support, particularly through the app’s aging filter, photos are popping up everywhere. Big name celebrities are posting their “old” photos to social media. And given the rather sophisticated artificial intelligence system powering the app’s filters, the photos look very realistic.

However, the app is making waves for another reason: privacy of user data.

U.S. politicians have expressed fears over “serious concerns regarding both the protection of the data that is being aggregated as well as whether users are aware of who may have access to it.” Requests for FBI investigations have been requested.

Why? Since 2017, the app has certainly offered questionable and distasteful “filters” for its users. But what has many raising the alarm?

Russia.

Wireless Lab, the developer of FaceApp, is a Russian company.

Those who have expressed concerns about the app’s privacy policy and terms of use suggest that people have given Russia, via FaceApp, the power to use their pictures for any purpose it wishes, perpetually.

You know those annoying, lengthy statements that you have to read when you install an app? Those legal statements, accompanied by “I agree”, the barrier that keeps you from adding wrinkles to your face, greying your hair or whatever?

Yeah, some suggest you might be a willing, yet, unknowing participant in a Russian scheme to collect a massive hoard of photo data for facial recognition software development. Others suggest that user and mobile device data will be collected and used in nefarious ways.

All of those suggestions are highly unlikely to happen.

What do the terms of use document reveal? “You grant FaceApp a perpetual, irrevocable, nonexclusive, royalty-free, worldwide, fully-paid, transferable sub-licensable license to use, reproduce, modify, adapt, publish, translate, create derivative works from, distribute, publicly perform and display your User Content.”

In summary, you and FaceApp’s developers agree that FaceApp owes you nothing for what you upload to the company. They do not, as some suggest “own your face”.

Should you be concerned?

In general, yes.

But, FaceApp isn’t doing anything different than many other companies in the same space. 

What does Facebook/Instagram state in its terms of use?  You grant permission to Facebook to “use your name and profile picture and information about actions you have taken on Facebook next to or in connection with ads, offers, and other sponsored content.” And Facebook’s history is littered with privacy violations.

SnapChat? What do you think is going on there? Yes, your photos are uploaded to servers, stored for some period of time. Take a moment to read through the lengthy terms of use and privacy documents at Snap.

But the photos are going to Russia.

Not according to a statement released by FaceApp last week. The service uses U.S.-based cloud systems from Amazon, and according to the same statement, the only photos that are uploaded are those the user selects for editing. The company claims those photos are deleted from its servers after 48 hours.

Lastly, unless you create an account and log in, the company has no access to any data that would identify a person. According to their statement, 99 percent of users don’t log in;  in fact, the app’s features are available without logging in.

So does FaceApp present cause for concern?  Yes, but you should apply the same level of scrutiny to all apps. You should be careful, extremely cautious with sharing photos, data, whatever with any app provider, whether it’s a Russian company or a U.S.-based company.

Is it worth it? That’s a personal decision – if you read the terms and conditions associated with your apps and believe the exchange of your data for their service is appropriate, then have fun.  My fear is for those who don’t read the terms and conditions, who don’t know what they’re signing up for.

Besides, I don’t need an app to make me look any older.