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Viral Russian-Created FaceApp Sparks Worry Over Privacy


FaceApp is a program that takes your photos and transforms you into a much older version of yourself. By now, you're either probably using it yourself or you've seen a friend or a celebrity show off their transformation on social media. FaceApp was developed in Russia by Russians, and that has raised a big question. How might those photos be used? The Democratic National Committee doesn't want to take chances, and it's telling presidential campaign staffers to, quote, "delete the app immediately."

Geoffrey Fowler is a technology columnist at The Washington Post. He ran his own forensic analysis of FaceApp, and he talked to the company's CEO. Geoffrey, good morning.

GEOFFREY FOWLER: Good morning.

KING: So explain how FaceApp works because the end results are pretty cool. It's neat to see yourself much older.

FOWLER: It's a wonder of artificial intelligence that it can map all these points on anybody's face and then figure out how to morph them just enough to kind of figure out what your future self might look like. It's actually been around since 2017 with other capabilities - it can also change your gender or your hair - but people really started paying attention to it recently with this aging effect.

KING: You did an analysis of FaceApp. Should users - and this is the big question. Should users be worried about privacy and security? Where are those photos going?

FOWLER: All really good questions. I think you should worry about FaceApp, but not necessarily any more than all the other apps on your phone. I think it's great that this app has caused us to have a conversation about, hey, wait a minute; where's my data going? Is it possibly going into the hands of the Russian government?

And we have some answers to those questions, but not all the ones that we necessarily want. But I didn't see anything under the hood that made this app seem any more particularly dangerous than a lot of the other ones that are also really popular.

KING: The fact that it was developed in Russia by Russians doesn't alone make it a security risk, but Democratic leaders are worried about it. Can you explain why?

FOWLER: One of the things that makes FaceApp controversial is that it has this privacy policy and terms of service that privacy advocates have started poring through, and it's really broad. It basically says that this app has the right to take your photo and hold onto it and use it kind of however they want for as long as they want. So that kind of language is actually pretty common in a lot of companies' terms of service. You'll even see that, like, in Instagram and Facebook.

But we now look at Russian companies a little bit differently, especially after the 2016 election where we know Russian technology had a role in shaping that election.

KING: Yeah.

FOWLER: I think we also look differently now at apps that are collecting pictures of our faces because we've been having a big conversation about the power of facial recognition and how that might be used.

KING: You talked to FaceApp's CEO. What did he tell you?

FOWLER: He offered some specifics about what his app is doing to respect our privacy that the terms of service and privacy policy and his website don't really offer, and I think some of them are important. So he said, for example, FaceApp only uploads one photo at a time, not your phone's entire camera roll. There were some people that presumed that it had access to every single photo and was sending that all up into the cloud, and that is not the case. I also saw that in my forensic analysis.

Another important thing he said is that FaceApp deletes most of the photos from its systems after 48 hours. So again, we have to believe the CEO on this, but he says most of them are gone after two days. The other thing he said that I think is important is that they're not using these photos to do something else. They're not running some kind of side business in facial recognition. They're really only using this to provide the service in the app, which is to morph your face into something cool.

KING: And if people do want to delete their data, is there someplace they can go and figure out how to do that quickly?

FOWLER: Yeah. Well, it doesn't really help just to delete the app itself because, as we've learned, your photos are going into the cloud and being processed in a server elsewhere. But you can go in the app. And if you go into the bug report settings and you submit a bug report and you start it with the word privacy, the company says they will pay attention to that one and delete the data of yours that they've got on their server.

KING: Geoffrey Fowler is a technology columnist for The Washington Post. Thanks so much, Geoffrey.

FOWLER: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.