Can you trust FaceApp with your face?

Thousands of people already sharing the results of their experiments on social media. Transformations of famous figures, actors, politicians, and cricketers emerging from everywhere. Is the Faceapp controversy valid or overblown? Not only Faceapp but also twitter has the same privacy policy.

Haven’t you tried the new FaceApp? I bet you may have tried or at least heard the latest viral news about it. If not, this App can transform your face to make it smile, look younger, look older, or change gender in seconds (Oops!).

This app is also capable to turn blank or grumpy expressions into smiling ones. Well, this at least helps some people smile.

The app has gone viral - but how many of you have read the terms and conditions? 

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What the FaceApp do?

The FaceApp is an image editing App which generates highly realistic transformations of faces in photographs automatically using the neural network technology.

The App provides many options to manipulate the uploaded images such as editor options of adding an impression, make-up, smiles, hair colors, hairstyles, glasses, age or beards. Filters, lens blur, and backgrounds along with overlays, tattoos, and vignettes are also a part of the app.

I Know How It Works FaceApp
Photo by Moose Photos from Pexels

Is it the new kid on the block?

The FaceApp is not new. It was developed by a Russian company called Wireless Lab (Russian? oh yes). First launched in 2017 on iOS in January and on Android in February same year. Ever since it has met much criticism in many areas like gender changes, ethnicity filters and of course over privacy concerns of user data. So why we talk about the FaceApp controversy now?.

Why FaceApp seems so scary?

Ever since the face-editing tool went viral in the last few days (especially after July 18, 2019 update), many have raised concerns over its terms and conditions. Many claims that the company a cavalier approach to users’ data. Some further claims the App can upload additional images available in the phone.

Eyebrows were raised lately when app developer Joshua Nozzi tweeted that FaceApp was uploading troves of images from people’s smartphones without permission.

Later he went on saying he shouldn’t have tweeted without evidence.

First let me say this: I was wrong. I was wrong about what I thought the app was doing (uploading all pics once granted access), and I was wrong to have posted the accusation without testing it first. Full stop.

The company said the App takes only the uploaded images by users that have been selected for editing and not additional images. Further FaceApp said in a statement most images were deleted from its servers within 48 hours of being uploaded.

They also reiterated they even accept user requests to remove personal data from their servers. However, they said their support team is backlogged with those requests. FaceApp also stated 99% of users choose not to log in, so they don’t have much in the way of identifying information.

Found no such bulk uploading was going on – FaceApp was only taking the specific photos users decided to submit as the company responded.

A French cyber-security researcher who uses the pseudonym Elliot Alderson

Why the App cannot process locally?

Questions raise why FaceApp needs to upload photos to the cloud at all when the app could just do the same process locally (theoretically).

Steven Murdoch, at University College London, agreed.

“It would be better for privacy to process the photos on the smartphone itself but it would be likely [to be] slower, use more battery power, and make it easier for the FaceApp technology to be stolen,” he told BBC News.

Cyber-security researcher Jane Manchun Wong tweeted that this may simply give FaceApp a competitive advantage – it is harder for others developing similar apps to see how the algorithms work.

Though the FaceApp itself is a Russian company with offices in St Petersburg, the servers (Google & Amazon) that stores user photos are located in the US.

What about facial recognition?

Others have speculated that FaceApp may use data gathered from user photos to train facial recognition algorithms. This is also possible even after the photos are deleted because measurements of features on a person’s face can be extracted and used for such purposes.

“No, we don’t use photos for facial recognition training,” the firm’s chief executive, Yaroslav Goncharov told BBC News. “Only for editing pictures.”

The gender change filter

The gender change transformations of FaceApp have attracted particular interest from the LGBT and transgender communities, due to their ability to realistically simulate the appearance of any person as the opposite gender in a few seconds.

In another instance, a “hot” transformation was available in the earlier app (in 2017) supposedly making its users appear more physically attractive. This was accused of racism for lightening the skin color of black people and making them look more European. This same feature was briefly renamed “spark” before being removed.

The ethnicity filter; origin of the FaceApp controversy

The FaceApp once again faced criticism when it featured “ethnicity filters” depicting “White”, “Black”, “Asian”, and “Indian”. In response to much criticism made in Press and Social Media, the company immediately withdrew this feature.

Call for FBI investigation into the App

“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”

US senator Chuck Schumer called for an FBI investigation into the app.

In response to questions, the company’s founder, Yaroslav Goncharov, stated that user data and uploaded images were not being transferred to Russia but instead processed on servers running in the Google Cloud and Amazon Web Services

The FaceApp controversy mostly talk about the Privacy Policy. The FaceApp’s privacy policy says that all information collected by the app can be stored and transferred to whichever countries FaceApp and its affiliates operate from. This means user’s images and app data can be stored even in Russia, the country where the app’s development team is based.

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 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. When you post or otherwise share User Content on or through our Services, you understand that your User Content and any associated information (such as your [username], location or profile photo) will be visible to the public.

— FaceApp terms of use, Forbes, 2019

Twitter has similar Terms and Conditions

Everyone talks about FaceApp controversy. US lawyer Elizabeth Potts Weinstein argued the app’s terms and conditions suggested user photos could be used for commercial purposes, such as FaceApp’s ads.

But Lance Ulanoff, editor-in-chief of tech site Lifewire, pointed out that Twitter’s terms, for example, contained a similar clause.

Are users aware of all these debates?

Everyone is fascinated to look into their future and the past. Well, FaceApp brings this wish into a reality in seconds. Many people just install Apps and mark the Terms and conditions as agreed even without reading a word.

There is no doubt that FaceApp controversy exists. FaceApp is the most popular free app on Google Play and Apple’s App Store thanks to an age filter that makes people in photos look much older. I believe this trend will go on for some time until we pick up the next big thing.

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