SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Is a peek into the future worth your privacy in the present? That concern was pushed to the spotlight this week with the resurgence of a smartphone app that uses artificial intelligence to transform your current face into your younger and older selves.
People raised fears on Twitter and other social media sites that on iPhones, FaceApp would be able to see and upload all your photos, including screenshots with sensitive financial or health information or photos of kids with the names of their schools in the background.
I'm glad y'all are having fun with that face-aging app but I will never be able to shake the feeling that alllllll those pics are being put straight into some kind of database, the sinister purpose of which won't be revealed until it's too late.— Scott Wampler™ (@ScottWamplerBMD) July 16, 2019
I thought we agreed a while back that the FaceApp was hella shady and probably using people’s photos to develop facial recognition technology that will ultimately serve the surveillance state? Nothing fun is free on these social media streets.— Saeed Jones (@theferocity) July 16, 2019
That's not actually true, but the scuttle serves as a good reminder to think twice before downloading new apps.
Even large, mainstream apps routinely collect user data. But many trendy-at-the-moment apps are guilty of mining user data as a primary purpose. Some personality quizzes on Facebook and similar services collect user information as a business, opening people up to breaches such as in the Cambridge Analytica scandal.
As for FaceApp, the app grabs a photo only if you specifically select it to see your face change, security researcher and Guardian Firewall CEO Will Strafach said.
The confusion comes from an iPhone feature that shows your photo library within the app. It is an Apple feature that lets you select a specific photo, but doesn't give the app full access to the library, even though it may appear that way.
You have the option of granting access to your entire photo library, but even then, there is no evidence the app is uploading anything other than the photo selected.
"I'm always looking for privacy concerns," said Strafach, who used a network analyzer tool to track what was happening. "When it's not happening, it's not happening."
There's a version of FaceApp for Android, but those phones don't tap photo libraries the same way.
That's not to say the app isn't free of problems, Strafach said.
Among other things, photos get sent to the cloud for processing in both the iPhone and Android versions, exposing them to hacking and other problems. FaceApp does not explicitly tell users that the photos are being sent to the cloud. Some apps try to limit exposure by doing the processing on the devices themselves, not in the cloud.
FaceApp, which is developed in Russia by Wireless Lab, has had surges of viral popularity before. The app also allows people to swap their genders or add facial hair or makeup.
Wireless Lab told technology news site TechCrunch that it may store users' photos in the cloud, but "most" are deleted after 48 hours. It said no user data is transferred to Russia.
The company has not responded to questions from The Associated Press. It told TechCrunch that users can request to have their data deleted.
Even with those admissions, Strafach urged people to resist the pull of the app. He said the app should have been upfront and told users it was processing photos in the cloud rather than on phones.
"Bottom line is they were handling sensitive data and they handled it cavalierly and that's just not cool," he said.
When you take a trip to the Year 3000. pic.twitter.com/O9Dxpwj6ex— Jonas Brothers (@jonasbrothers) July 16, 2019
If we found out the Faceapp gave you cancer people would still be like "ooh what do I look like as an old person with cancer?"— Daydrink Nation™ (@TimDuffy) July 16, 2019
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