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The FaceApp Scare: How Machine Learning Technology can put Your Identity in Danger

Posted August 5, 2019

We are currently living in the ‘mobile app’ age. Every other day, a new app comes into existence and makes everyone go gaga over it. The new apps ride a wave of popularity until it no longer generates the same amount of excitement among users or gets marred by privacy scandals.

A New Craze Taking the World by Storm

Ever wondered why your social media feeds are suddenly crowded with old-generated photos of your young friends? It is all because of a viral sensation that our photo-obsessed culture is embracing with arms wide open.

Credit: Pixabay (Free Pixabay licence)

FaceApp is an AI-driven technology that relies on machine learning and neural networks to predict how a certain individual would look like as a senior citizen. It uses a filter to change the way you look and generates a picture that is an epitome of wrinkles and sagged skin.

Although face-changing filters have existed for a very long time, FaceApp is extremely popular because it generates realistic photos using neural networks. It works by uploading the users’ pictures to a remote server that relies on machine learning to predict their old age picture.

On the surface, this free app may seem fun; however, it is not without a few nasty surprises! FaceApp is the brainchild of Russian-based development house, Wireless Labs, which is accompanied with a rather peculiar user agreement. This is where the privacy scandal comes in and it may forever change the way you look at this app!

Questionable Policies

Speaking of scandals, every app has its User Agreement or Terms of Use. Companies use this legal informational section to inform the users about how the app should be used. Additionally, it is also used by developers to let the users know that their data will be stored and used in countless ways without users’ permission. Many consumers give up their privacy willingly in order to be a part of certain trends.

Credit: Pixabay (Free Pixabay licence)

This is where the problem starts with FaceApp. The particular section that has drawn criticism from privacy enthusiasts contains the following information:

“You grant FaceApp a perpetual, irrevocable, nonexclusive, royalty-free, worldwide, fully-paid, transferable sub-license to use, reproduce, modify, adapt, publish, translate, create derivative works from, distribute, publicly perform and display your User Content, and any name, username, or likeness provided in connection with your User Content in all media formats and channels now known or later developed, without compensation to you.”

But the trouble does not end here. Their privacy section further states that it will use third-party tools to assess and store large amounts of users’ data. This data will be extracted from the users’ devices and will include their web browsing history, add-ons, and other information. FaceApp will be collecting this kind of information in a bid to improve their services. That said, the FaceApp further gets a little tricky:

“You grant FaceApp consent to use the User Content, regardless of whether it includes an individual’s name, likeness, voice, or persona, sufficient to indicate the individual’s identity. By using the Services, you agree that the User Content may be used for commercial purposes.”

This excerpt is taken out from FaceApp’s policies and it clearly states that the collected data can be used to serve commercial purposes. This reminds us of Facebook’s “This Is Your Digital Life” personality quiz that collected users’ information and sold the data to Cambridge Analytica. Using the data, this organization played a key role in shaping Donald Trump’s online campaign. The reason we are mentioning this is that, just like Facebook, FaceApp has vague and somewhat skeptical user policy that could put users’ privacy at risk.

Should you be Worried?

Such Terms of Use and User Agreement are not written for the users’ benefit. They are specifically designed by legal parties hired by the companies to avoid future legal liabilities. Also, this is done in a bid to avoid sharing how companies are using or will use the collected data without the givers’ knowledge.

Credit: Pixabay (Free Pixabay licence)

To tackle the criticism, Yaroslav Goncharov, FaceApp founder, said that they store the uploaded photos within the cloud to save the users from the trouble of re-uploading the photos for every single editing option. In an official statement to People, he further added that the FaceApp “deletes most of the images from its databases after 48 hours.”

This statement is problematic in itself as it indicates that the developers of FaceApp might not be telling the entire truth. Also, they may be using data that could go beyond the one picture which you upload on FaceApp. Since the collected digital data is forever, you may never know how, where and in what context your photos, personal or political views can be used in the future.

The threat of identity theft becomes more prominent since your photos can be easily connected to your name along with other identification information. In the era of deepfake technology, where convincing fake videos of individuals could be created with just a photo, the issue of privacy becomes a serious threat!

Right now, the existing privacy of FaceApp is open and vague. They may not do anything right now but when the hype dies, who knows what they will do with collected data. Also, the future updates are a cause for concern since they may change the way the app works or may include further sections that may give them more access to your device compared with what they have right now.

Final Thoughts

Limiting the issues of privacy invasion to FaceApp would be a case of serious injustice. This is because we are gladly giving up our data to every single app that we use daily. Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter, etc. all come with a fine print that contains questionable policies; however, we choose to ignore it every day.

That said, many privacy enthusiasts are calling for people to ban the app and are asking other people to stop downloading it. Sorry to burst your bubble but doing this will not make any difference. As long as you have other apps that are stealing your information, deleting only one would feel hypocritical which is why there should be a strict privacy policy for mobile app development service providers.

The concerns for security are valid; however, they go beyond the user policies of FaceApp. As one article puts it “Think FaceApp is Scary? Wait till Your Hear About Facebook.”

Article written by Shawn Mike, Content Editor at Dynamologic Solutions.

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