FaceApp challenge: Privacy experts warn over using Russian ‘ageing’ app

Rob Waugh
The app has been a huge hit (FaceApp)

The viral FaceApp challenge has seen internet users worldwide ‘artificially age’ their faces in smartphone images using an AI-powered app.

It’s fast, it’s fun - but it’s also raised serious concerns from security experts, who warn that users may be ‘signing over’ rights to their photos.

FaceApp is a Russian-made app with 80 million users worldwide, and a history of producing outrageous visual ‘makeovers’ using AI technology.

CEO Yaroslav Goncharov explained the latest breakthrough to TechCrunch, saying, ‘We developed a new technology that uses neural networks to modify a face on any photo while keeping it photorealistic.’

But some experts have warned of FaceApp’s unclear privacy policies, claiming that users have little control over how images could be used - or where they are stored.

The company has denied these claims, Forbes reports, with CEO Goncharov saying, ‘We only upload a photo selected by a user for editing. We never transfer any other images from the phone to the cloud.

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‘We might store an uploaded photo in the cloud. The main reason for that is performance and traffic: we want to make sure that the user doesn't upload the photo repeatedly for every edit operation. Most images are deleted from our servers within 48 hours from the upload date.’

‘We don't sell or share any user data with any third parties.’

But privacy experts have warned that users are consenting to their data being stored and reused, according to Privacy Pro’s Digital Privacy Expert Ray Walsh.

Walsh tells Yahoo News, ‘FaceApp has a frighteningly invasive privacy policy that gives the firm full rights over all the data that users provide it with. This includes giving the firm legal permission to utilize the app user’s likeness, including their image, persona, and voice - for any reason and at any point in the future.

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‘These kinds of permissions are extremely broad and should ring alarm bells considering how emerging deep-fake technology can be used to successfully impersonate people in videos.

‘Consumers need to understand that while using a novelty app can be fun, the danger that itcould be harvesting their data is very real.

‘In the case of FaceApp the privacy policy gives the firm permission to take just about anything they want, and the firm never reveals why that data is harvested or for what purposes it will be used.’

Walsh says that users should always be cautious about apps with such permissions, warning that there is a long history of seemingly innocent apps harvesting and transmitting data.

Walsh said, ‘This isn't the first time that an app designed to put effects on people's photos has been found to have troublingly invasive permissions.

In 2017, an app called Meitu designed to turn people's selfies into Manga characters - was found to be sending huge amounts of data back to servers based in China.

Meitu’s invasive permissions included sending details about people's location, MAC and IMEI numbers, contacts, photos, and the contents of their device's memory back to Chinese servers.

‘Even Snapchat has been criticized for harvesting user data and storing images that users believed were temporary one-time captures only.

‘For app developers, the concept of developing seemingly benevolent apps - that actually performs high levels of corporate surveillance - has long been understood to be lucrative.

‘People’s data is extremely valuable and can be resold to extract profits from huge numbers of third party companies.’

Yahoo has reached out to FaceApp’s makers for comment.

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