If you’ve been on social media in the past week or so, you’ve likely run into the FaceApp Challenge. Like a Benjamin Button fever dream, Twitter and Instagram have been flooded with images of young people turned old via a filter in FaceApp, an app seeing its second viral moment in two years. Naturally, like most things that go viral, FaceApp is now facing a backlash. Twitter users have noted that FaceApp was created by developers at WirelessLabs in St. Petersburg, Russia in 2017 and that its Terms and Agreement suggest they own your photos. Cue the panic.
Like other apps, FaceApp asks permission to access your photos, which are then sent through “a state of the art photo-editor powered by AI” to modify those images. In this latest trend, the app uses its technology to make users’ faces look older. But, the language in the Terms and the app’s country of origin has sparked a little bit of fear in the press. The New York Post reported today that “Russians now own all your old photos.”
Extracting data from unsuspecting users, selling and sharing that data god-knows-where, and justifying it by providing users unreadable privacy policies is a near-universal practice. It transcends Cold War phobias. It’s not Russian. It’s not American. It’s a fundamentally capitalist practice. Companies can only provide free apps and profit if they scrape and share data from the people that use it.
In a statement to Tech Crunch, the company said, “Most images are deleted from our servers within 48 hours from the upload date.”
According to the FaceApp website, it currently has “over 80 million active users,” yet the viral concerns are not about how massive corporations buy-and-sell our data, it’s based on the notion that the Kremlin is maliciously hoarding our old selfies.
But, there is reason to be concerned about how all companies—not just Russian ones—use and sell our data. China has reportedly been using facial recognition to target minorities while Russia allegedly had deep roots in Cambridge Analytica and Facebook advertising. So, there are certainly reasons to be concerned about the data you’re sharing with companies—but the issue is a whole lot more complex than that photo you accidentally took from your pocket.
Data is powerful, but so is education. Before going full Red Selfie Scare, go through your phone and actually assess how much information you’re already putting out into the world.
On a phone with iOS, it’s as simple as going to your Settings and scrolling to the bottom of that page. Every app on your phone has an entry. Click on whichever one you’re curious about and it will show you what information an app is accessing. If you’re a thorough paranoiac, reading Terms and Agreement for an app you’re unsure about is one way to get the bottom of your concerns.
The big solution here is that if you don’t want to have your image and information at risk, don’t use the app. But if you’re concerned about your information (or your selfies), you may also want to check your privacy settings for Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and Google. After all, every time a photo is uploaded to Facebook and suggests you tag someone, that too is facial recognition. You might be surprised with the access you’ve already given to these mega companies.
And for God’s sake, use this app’s viral moment as a reminder to moisturize and use sunscreen every day.