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In our opinion: Pretending to age your face isn't worth risking personal information

FaceApp transforms your face using artificial intelligence.
FaceApp transforms your face using artificial intelligence.
Amy Iverson, FaceApp

Is the popular new app calledFaceAppreally just a front for the Russian government that will allow it access to personal information and possibly compromise national security?

Hard to say. The company that produces the app, which can manipulate a picture of a face to show how will age over time, is based in Russia. The app does come with a vaguely worded privacy policy that appears to give it access to your photo library, your name and a host of other information. Its Russian producers say they won’t ever use any of this for bad purposes, but then what else would you expect them to say?

We don’t know the answers, but we are moved by what Liz O’Sullivan, a technologist for the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, told NPR. “My impression of it honestly was shock that so many people were, in this climate, so willing to upload their picture to a seemingly unknown server without really understanding what that data would go to feed,” she said.

Perhaps it is naive to be shocked the gullibility modern people who breeze past privacy policies in pursuit of free and fun apps, but really, people ought to be more careful.

The Democratic Party gets it. Once worries about the app began to surface, party leaders warned any member of any presidential campaign to immediately delete it. That’s understandable, given what Russia did to party servers and email accounts in the 2016 election. U.S. intelligence agencies have been crystal clear about Russian-backed campaigns to spread false information on social media, to incite partisan battles in the United States and to otherwise compromise the credibility of U.S. elections. There is little reason to believe those efforts won’t continue in 2020, and we don’t know what form such attacks might take. The people of ancient Troy, after all, weren’t on guard against a horse the Greeks seemed to kindly offer as a gift.

Members of Congress are asking whether the FTC ought to be more aggressive in monitoring the safety of computer applications. A more relevant question might be whether Apple, Google and other companies with online app stores are doing enough to vet applications based on ownership and the wording of privacy agreements. Google’s Play Store listed FaceApp as an editor’s choice.

Geoffrey Fowler of the Washington Post, whose own investigations have shown just how much private information people’s phones send to tracking companies, wrote that the app sends a great deal of data to its own servers.

He also interviewed the company’s CEO, who said most photos are deleted after 48 hours, and that the app collects only the photos users select, not the phone’s entire camera roll. Also, most users never register their names and email addresses, which means the company has no access to that information, he said.

But by now we should know to be extra cautious about giving personal information to anyone, no matter how fun it may seem.

No one seems to know exactly what might go wrong. O’Sullivan speculated about possible military or police applications. Others wonder what the app might be collecting from the rest of a person’s phone.

All of this may just be paranoia. But when it comes to personal information and foreign data collection, paranoia may be a rational response.

Besides, who really wants to be in a hurry to speed up the aging process, anyway?