FaceApp: Is the viral face-aging app a danger to your privacy?

You could be uploading more personal data than you realised.

Celebrities had been using the app’s age filter to modify photographs of themselves to see what they could look like decades in the future (Photo: Carrie Underwood/Gordon Ramsay/Drake on Instagram)

The photo editing app that utilises neural networks to create dramatic edits has gone viral again, thanks to a new aging filter. After amassing more than 80 million active users since 2017, the app is blowing up again with a #FaceApp Challenge, where people add years to their visage with the old age filter. Even celebrities couldn’t resist a good Internet moment – Gordon Ramsay, The Jonas Brothers, Carrie Underwood, Drake, Queer Eye’s Fab Five and a host of famous personalities gave us a glimpse into their futures, complete with white hair, wrinkles and sagging jawlines.

Sure, posting a photo online to see what we’d look like as a grandparent sounds fun and harmless. But one tweet set off an unsettling panic this week. Does it also violate our privacy?

FaceApp, owned by the Russia-based Wireless Lab, made its rounds two years ago for allowing users to look older, younger or swap gender. But one of its features, which enables users to lighten the skin or swap races, was criticised for being racist within minutes of going live. Now, rumours are swirling on Twitter about the dangers of FaceApp as well as its ties with Russia and security issues we should consider.


It all started with a tweet

Tweeter and app developer Joshua Nozzi raised a flag about FaceApp having access to all your photos, even if they weren’t uploaded to the server owned by the St. Petersburg-based company.  

However, a French cyber-security researcher who uses the pseudonym Elliot Alderson (real name Baptiste Robert) investigated Nozzi’s claims and found no such activity was going on – the app was only taking the specific photo users submitted, not their entire camera rolls. According to Forbes, the server was based in Amazon data centres in the U.S., not Russia. But given the developer company is based in St. Petersburg, the faces will be viewed and processed in Russia.

CEO of FaceApp Yaroslav Goncharov confirmed with The Verge that the company stored pictures only for a short time for performance purposes and they are deleted afterwards.


So, should you still be worried?

Some users question the need of uploading photos to the app’s cloud when, in theory, they could just be processed locally on their smartphones. There is a logical reason to this, as explained by cyber-security researcher Jane Manchun Wong who commented on how the process may give the app a competitive advantage:

a) Faster editing so the app doesn’t use more battery power. Plus, users don’t need to upload their photo repeatedly for every edit operation.

b) It’s harder for competitors developing similar apps to copy/observe how the algorithms work.

If users are wary about FaceApp, then we should be worried about the existing apps we’re using daily too. Lance Ulanoff, the editor-in-chief of tech site Lifewire, pointed out Twitter’s term:


Should I still use FaceApp?

While a majority of rumours about stealing your whole library of photos has been debunked, there are still some concerns over privacy – and they’re all disclosed in the fine print. In FaceApp's privacy terms, the company stated that it can collect any of a user’s uploaded photos as well as data on the user’s visited websites and other information.

Having said that, users who wish to remove their data from FaceApp can make the request through the app by clicking “Settings,” then “Support,” then “Report a bug” with “privacy” in the subject line. 

Faces are a crucial biometric as security cameras (just look at the immigration gates at KLIA) and surveillance in public locations become more available. Users should be savvy about programmes and games that are encouraging people to engage in the same way because we are never sure about the motives of the apps we give access to.


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