FaceApp, an app that uses machine learning algorithms to alter facial images, has been riding the ebbs and flows of popularity for its brief 2 year existence. The app owes its popularity to viral sensations like the one it’s currently experiencing, which has users sharing photos of their older or younger counterparts. This aging filter was preceded by the controversial “blackface” filter and the equally controversial “hotness” filter. The former features have been a cause of criticism, but those criticisms pale in comparison to the scrutiny the app faces from security researchers and anyone concerned with privacy.
-“Ariel Hochstadt told Daily Mail that hackers, who are not infrequently agents of the Russian government, can log the websites visited and “the activities they perform in those websites,” though they might not know the identity of the person being tracked.” 3/3
— Bob Cesca (@bobcesca_go)
The crux of the issue is the rights that FaceApp claims over your photos. There have been several tweets and articles dedicated to the legalese that allows FaceApp to practically do whatever it is they want to do with the photos you upload to the app.
If you use #FaceApp you are giving them a license to use your photos, your name, your username, and your likeness for any purpose including commercial purposes (like on a billboard or internet ad) — see their Terms: https://t.co/e0sTgzowoN pic.twitter.com/XzYxRdXZ9q
— Elizabeth Potts Weinstein (@ElizabethPW)
Though the concerns about the potential for abuse are valid, one wonders why a fad app bears the brunt of privacy concerns. One doesn’t have to go too far to find the answer; FaceApp is based in Russia. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer spelled out his reasoning for calling for an FBI investigation of FaceApp in a tweet, saying, “It’s owned by a Russian-based company.” The company that has Schumer and others concerned is called Wireless Lab. Its CEO, Yaroslav Goncharov, has had to allay concerns about FaceApp’s privacy through a press statement provided to TechCrunch. In the statement, he claims that FaceApp does not share or sell any user data to third parties(that’s different from allowing third part advertisers to deliver targeted ads). User can also delete all their data by “sending the requests from the FaceApp mobile app using “Settings->Support->Report a bug” with the word “privacy” in the subject line.” It’s a finicky process that doesn’t guarantee anything. But Goncharov also claims that FaceApp deletes most photos from its servers after 48 hours, anyway.
There’s nothing wrong with demanding those in charge of handling your data to use it responsibly. Images are of a special concern with the rise of neural networks that can map a face to a body, a technique known as deepfaking. However, FaceApp isn’t the only photo app out there. Instagram houses millions of photos and there are a bevy of other photo manipulation apps that hackers can exploit. Instead of hyper-focusing on the latest sensation and pushing a Red Scare narrative, political leaders in the U.S.should take a page out of the EU and draft a comprehensive data regulation bill that will make privacy concerns a moot point.
"We think it's a good thing that people are more interested in using privacy controls and managing their information online," a Facebook spokesperson said in a statement. Its traffic had steadily been growing since, but it boomed in 2018 as Facebook's privacy issues blew up, said Gabriel Weinberg, CEO and founder of DuckDuckGo.
Still, it falls on large tech companies to prioritize privacy. If disruptors like DuckDuckGo are the only ones concerned, then we can’t expect others to follow suit. If the Googles of the world invest in educating their user base about the importance of privacy and the steps in which they take to secure their data, more users will look for this in the apps they download. In the future, they might see an app like FaceApp and either pass it by or knowingly install it, content with selling their privacy for a bit of viral fun.
No less an authority than François Chollet has written “I’d like to raise awareness about what really worries me when it comes to AI: the highly effective, highly scalable manipulation of human behavior that AI enables, and its malicious use by corporations and governments.” We may conclude that while individually, our privacy may usually be mostly meaningless, collectively, it is a critically important commons.
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