FaceApp Requires Caution, Not Fear

There are four lessons when it comes to FaceApp. Read on for advice about staying safe on the popular app.

Jul 19, 2019

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This post first appeared in the Mercury News

By Larry Magid

There are four lessons when it comes to FaceApp. Number one, it’s important to understand the privacy implications of it and every other app you use. Number two, don’t believe every rumor you hear about horrible things apps might do. Number three, don’t assume that every app or piece of technology coming out of Russia is necessarily nefarious and number four: it’s fun.

FaceApp is a popular iOS and Android app that lets you see how you’re going to look when you get older and remind you how you may have looked when you were younger. You can also apply it to pictures of other people. It’s a fun app, but it has also raised both real and imagined privacy concerns.

Let’s start with the imagined one.

Lesson one

There were widespread rumors and media reports that the app was sending all of your photos, including screenshots, to its developers in Russia and implications that these images were being turned over to the Russian government.  Senator Chuck Schumer called for FBI and Federal Trade Commission investigations because of the app’s “national security and privacy risks for millions of U.S. citizens.” But both the AP and the New York Times quoted security experts who said that the app was not sending your entire photo library to the company’s servers but only the photos you selected, which makes sense since the most effective way the company could apply its algorithms to you pictures is if you upload them to their servers. Still, as part of lesson one, it is important to note that the app’s privacy policy does give the developer some rights — including the right to send you ads and store your pictures, but this is typical of many apps. So, getting back to lesson number one, do pay attention to privacy policies but know they can sometimes be complex. FaceApp’s privacy policy is typically broad and legalistic but not draconian as privacy policies go.

Lesson two

When it comes to lesson number two, don’t assume everything bad or good you hear about an app or any other technology is necessarily true. There are a lot of false rumors and urban myths circulating online. A while back, millions of people reposted the false rumor that “Facebook has just released the entry price, $5.99, to keep the subscription of your status to be set to “private,” and there are plenty of other examples. Frankly, I’m disappointed that media outlets and elected officials fell into and spread the moral panic over this app before verifying the rumors.

My policy is to avoid sharing information I see on social media without first making some effort to find out if it’s true. You may never be 100% sure of whether something is true or false, but you can make a reasonable effort by searching for information and paying attention to the sources of the information you find. For example, I can’t swear with 100% certainty that the security experts quoted by the New York Times and the AP are correct about what they say about FaceApp, but I do know those are credible experts being quoted by credible media outlets.

Lesson three

Lesson number three is less about technology and more about our national obsession with all things Russia. Yes, the Russian government interfered with our election. Yes there are companies that collaborate closely with the Putin administration. But not everyone in Russia is an agent of the government. I can’t say with certainty that the app developer isn’t turning over information to the Russian government, but there is no evidence that it is happening. The Washington Post reported that its developer, Wireless Labs, was founded and is run by CEO Yaroslav Goncharov, who worked for Microsoft as a technical lead in Redmond, Washington, for three years starting in 2003 and more recently held executive positions for Russian telecommunications companies, SPB Software and Yandex. Again, I don’t know if he is or isn’t turning over data, but what I do know is that great technology has been coming out of Russia since the Soviet Era and — while there is always good reason to be concerned — there is also no reason to panic over every company based in Russia or for that matter China. Concern yes, panic no.

Lesson four

Lesson number four is that FaceApp is fun, but far from perfect. It applies a lot of filters to images, including an age filter that attempts to approximate what you will look like in the future and what you looked like when you were younger. I tried it and was amused by my future self (more wrinkled but not that bad) and disappointed on how inaccurate it was about my past self. There are other filters that let you change hair color, style and add facial hair but these only work on the Pro version that I didn’t want to pay for.

Bottom line: Enjoy your phone and your apps, but do vet apps and do know that there are privacy concerns with many apps you probably already use, including some from major companies. There is a lot we don’t know about what apps actually do, but if we’re careful we can at least reduce our risk.

Finally, there is one more risk associated with FaceApp. It’s one more piece of technology that can distort reality so, if you see a picture of someone who looks older than they should, it may be real, but it may also be fake.

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