How an app that creates versions of faces kicked up a social media storm

FaceApp versions of cricketer Virat Kohli, US President Donald Trump and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg
Who: For most of us, social media is not only the repository of all kinds of facts and alternative facts, but also an irresistible fuel for narcissism. The newest trend that is testimony to the latter is a mobile application called FaceApp that has spread among users like the plague. In the last one week, 150 million people have downloaded the app developed by a Russian company called Wireless Lab. And why wouldn’t you? FaceApp uses an age filter to show users what they will look like after 40 years.

Where: Well, as the numbers suggest, everywhere. And everyone, from celebrities to the ordinary user, seems to be posting photos of their “older selves” on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. There has been the odd put-down, with iconic singer Mariah Carey responding to the “FaceApp Challenge” with a meme saying that the app isn’t something she acknowledges. Closer home, the app has caught the fancy of several movie stars and cricketers who have shared photos that may appear to be the handiwork of a prosthetic makeup artist gone wild.

What: The app uses neural network technology to automatically generate highly realistic transformations of faces in photographs. Two years ago, FaceApp had egg on its face when it was compelled to remove an ethnicity filter after angry users condemned it as racist. Now, amid the initial gusto with which the old age filter has been received, some are taking issue with the company over privacy concerns — in particular a clause in the terms and conditions of the app that says users allow FaceApp “a perpetual, irrevocable, non-exclusive, royalty-free, worldwide, fully-paid, transferable sub-licensable license” to use their uploaded photos. This implies it may not be all playful innocence. It triggered panic in the US where fears of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election are yet to die down. Not surprisingly, a Democrat senator wrote to the FBI demanding a probe into FaceApp’s data-gathering. Amid overblown fears, FaceApp has said that it is not a privacy risk, and stressed that most images are deleted from its servers. It further clarified that FaceApp’s R&D team is in Russia but the data of US users isn’t stored in that country.

How: The craze for downloading and sharing futuristic photos of ourselves may continue, at least until the next big trend takes social media by storm. Early last year, the Facebook–Cambridge Analytica data scandal first stoked widespread privacy fears after it was revealed that the latter, a British consulting firm, had harvested personal data of millions (users assumed they were merely taking a personality test for academic record) without their knowing and used it for political advertising. Now with the ongoing episode, as the afterthoughts show, our concerns do not match our understanding or awareness of privacy issues.

Cyber law experts point out that when a user downloads an app, it takes a lot of permissions to access her phone and the data in it. As a result, a lot of things including biometrics can get compromised and lead to individuals getting profiled. Users are advised to read the agreements and check the app websites. In India, the targeting of parties with criminal and civil liability will depend on the fate of a personal data protection law, which is likely to be tabled during the ongoing session of Parliament. Until then, it may be wise to not rush into downloading apps and sharing personal data that leave us guessing later. FaceApp followed by facepalm is no fun.

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