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What you should know before you use the Russian FaceApp

  • For the second time since 2017, the FaceApp spreads wildly. The trigger is probably that a number of celebrities posted selfies of themselves, on which they let their faces age using the app.
  • Some experts now express concerns: It is unclear what the company with the photos instead. And politics also has its say.
  • Democrats in the US have now called on the FBI to see if US citizen's use of the app poses a threat to national security.
Although the Russian application FaceApp is two years old, it has once again become a viral hit. A number of US celebrities had posted manipulated images of themselves on social networks. The rapper Drake , the pop band Jonas Brothers , DJ David Guetta, all used the Russian app to age selfie of a few decades. Millions of fans followed suit. And now many people want to look old themselves
The FaceApp, which first gained fame in early 2017 , uses a self-learning artificial intelligence (AI). The software calculates a possible aged version of the face from the source image based on thousands of training photos. According to Yaroslav Goncharov, the head of the company, the program also uses Google's Tensorflow software. The result looks amazingly realistic in most cases - and therefore particularly irritating for users
However, some experts soon expressed a suspicion: The FaceApp could access the entire photo library of users and then upload them to their servers, it was for example at the platform 9to5mac.com , citing the app developer Joshua Nozzi. He had granted the app on his phone permission to access the photo store. Since the photos in the app then loaded very slowly, Nozzi concluded that they would be loaded on servers by FaceApp. Other developers disagreed immediately, for example the CEO of the iOS firewall app "Guardian", Will Strafach.

What does the russian app do with the photos of the users?

Strafach also installed the app and checked the data packets it sends over the Internet. Strafach was not able to spot mass photo uploads, just a few of those apps' fairly normal contacts to Amazon's AWS cloud service or social media. Strafach also criticized, however, that the selected photo is not changed on the smartphone of the user, but in the Amazon cloud, without the app makes that clear.
However, if you take a look at the privacy policy of the app, that should not come as a surprise. It states: "Any information that you voluntarily process with FaceApp will be available to the app anonymously." That is, any photo used can be used by the company as it pleases. With more than 100 million downloads of the app since 2017 , this is a lot of photos, even if the alleged unauthorized upload of the entire photo library does not take place.
The concerns of some users are probably also due to the fact that the developers come from Russia. CEO Goncharov has spent several years working for Microsoft in the US on his LinkedIn profile, later developing software for mobile phones, including as head of the mobile platform for Russian Google competitor Yandex. However, he left already in 2013 to found his own company Wireless Lab. She already had a success next to FaceApp 2014 . With the website "Hotel Wifi Test" she made it on a list of the Time Magazine of the best websites of the year 2014 . However, there is no evidence of Goncharov's connections to Russian intelligence services or other suspicious groups.

US Democrats warn against app usage

But privacy, Russia, USA, manipulation: There was something. Russia campaigned around the US election in 2016 to influence the voting decisions of US citizens. And that's why not only computer scientists and privacy advocates warn against using FaceApp. Even the head of the Democrats in the US Senate, Chuck Schumer, is alarmed . He has publicly called on the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to investigate whether the use of the app by millions of US citizens constitutes a national security risk. In any case, the Democrats advise their potential presidential candidate to keep their hands off the app.
"Danger to national security" - that may be exaggerated. A possible attack scenario is difficult to imagine. The danger that apps or other services misuse photos, for example, to feed facial recognition software with training data, is not out of thin air. NBC reported only in May that the Cloud storage service "Ever" had done just that. Launched as an ordinary photo storage service in 2013 , Ever eventually began using the users' stored photos to train the company's newly created facial recognition branch. The company did not tell the users about it. Only after NBC had confronted the company with the research, a corresponding passage was secretly inserted into the terms of use.

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