FaceApp: A Russian app incites a data panic
An app that lets users see what they might look like in 50 years went viral last week, said Chip Brownlee in Slate.com—entertaining users while building up a database of millions of faces. FaceApp takes your selfie and runs it through a digital time machine—whitening your hair, deepening your wrinkles—all for a good, perhaps horrified, laugh. But worries about the app’s creator, Russia-based Wireless Lab, sparked questions about whether those “funny aged photos (and maybe the originals, too) were being sent across the cloud to servers in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s backyard—for who knows what.” A trove of such images can have commercial benefits for anyone working with facial recognition technology, and potentially nefarious opportunities for so-called deepfakes. FaceApp’s CEO said data is only being stored on U.S. and Australian servers, but the app’s link to Russia even prompted the Democratic National Committee to warn presidential campaigns to delete it.
“Think FaceApp is scary? Wait till you hear about Facebook,” said Brian Barrett in Wired. The social media giant regularly “applies facial recognition to photos that users upload to its servers,” yet it still has 2.5 billion active users. FaceApp is worrisome, but it’s no worse than “any other app you let into your photo library.” The FaceApp controversy is probably overblown, said Charlie Warzel in The New York Times, but that doesn’t mean it was pointless. “No, it’s probably not a Russian intelligence operation” intended to build deepfake videos. But it’s useful to stop “to think about the companies behind the apps we download.” The real message of this scandal is not that FaceApp is an outlier but that demanding as much data as possible from users is an “industry standard.” And finally we are heading toward a “much-needed reckoning.” ■