Following the panic over this viral app, faceapp, the moral of the story is: don’t worry too much about ‘the Russians’. You should worry about everything!
Over the last few days the #faceappchallenge has taken over social media. This “challenge” involves downloading a selfie-editing tool called FaceApp and using one of its filters to digitally age your face. You then post the photo of your wizened old self on the internet and everyone laughs uproariously. You get a small surge of dopamine from gathering a few online likes before existential ennui sets in once again. Challenge completed.
On Monday, as the #faceappchallenge went viral, Joshua Nozzi, a software developer, warned people to “BE CAREFUL WITH FACEAPP….it immediately uploads your photos without asking, whether you chose one or not”. Some media outlets picked this claim up and privacy concerns about the app began to mount.
Concern escalated further when people started to point out that FaceApp is Russian. “The app that you’re willingly giving all your facial data to says the company’s location is in Saint-Petersburg, Russia,” tweeted the New York Times’s Charlie Warzel. And we all know what those Russians are like, don’t we? They want to harvest your data for nefarious purposes. Unlike American techies, of course. Who are always deeply respectful when it comes to personal data, and only use your private information to make the world a better, more connected, place.
By Wednesday things had calmed down a little bit. A French security researcher who uses the pseudonym Elliot Alderson ran a check on the app and found it was not actually uploading your entire camera roll – just the photo you were modifying. Which is what you’d expect from an app like that. Speaking to me over the phone, Alderson said he also couldn’t find any evidence it was stealing all your data; it was just getting your device ID and your device model. Which, again, is pretty much to be expected. The reason the app was causing such a fuss, Alderson hypothesized, was because of fears about Russia.
FaceApp also responded to the controversy, telling 9to5Mac on Wednesday that it “might store” some uploaded photos in the cloud for “performance and traffic” reasons. It also said that while the app’s “core R&D team is located in Russia, the user data is not transferred to Russia”.
As more information about FaceApp came out, Nozzi, the developer who helped raise the alarm about the tool, issued a lengthy mea culpa and deleted his original tweets. Wurzel also deleted his tweets about FaceApp, stating that his comments about it being Russian were being misinterpreted. “My frame of reference for them came from reporting i’m doing on diff apps accessing data/ sending it places we wouldn’t assume (3rd parties, not govts),” he tweeted.
Chances are your face is already in a database somewhere, helping to train artificial intelligence to take over the world
If you refused to partake in the #faceappchallenge because you were worried about your privacy, good for you. However, I wouldn’t feel too smug yet. Chances are your face is already in a database somewhere, helping to train artificial intelligence (AI) to take over the world. As Adam Harvey, a privacy expert, pointed out to me over email: “Google researchers disclosed that they used at least 8 million user images to train face recognition. And Facebook researchers mentioned using at least 10 million users.”Advertisement
In May Google researchers also disclosedthat they had used 2,000 YouTube videos of people doing the mannequin challenge (the viral challenge where you stay still) to help train an AI model on predicting the depth of a moving object in a video. The researchers also released their data set for future research, meaning there’s no saying how that data will be used in the future. That video you made as a joke might be helping to train anything from a self-driving car to a killer drone.
You don’t even have to upload anything to the internet yourself for your photo to end up training AI technology. Earlier this year it was reported that the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs had secretly been photographing students for a facial recognition study. Images of more than 1,700 people were collected between 2012-2013 without their knowledge or consent. Those photos went into a dataset used for training facial recognition algorithms. The funding for this dataset came from US intelligence and military agencies.
The moral of this story, then, is that you shouldn’t worry too much about a Russian app. You should worry about everything. We are only just beginning to understand the extent to which we live in a surveillance hell. We are only just beginning to realize that our faces no longer belong to us, they’ve been privatized.