So You Downloaded FaceApp & You're Worried About Your Data — What Now?

Photographed by Erin Yamagata.
So you wanted to know what you’d look like in 40 or 50 years and you downloaded an app that gives you all the fine lines and wrinkles you’ve (n)ever wanted. You see that Busy Phillips would still look great and that Jay Versace would grow into being quite the (grand) daddy. But you logged onto Twitter yesterday and suddenly, you’re scared you just gave an army of Russian hackers the tools they need to create deep fakes and steal your identity. Fret not, though. Here’s the real deal.

What Is FaceApp?

FaceApp uses artificial intelligence to add or remove years from your face. It was developed by Wireless Lab, a company based out of St. Petersburg, Russia. In late 2018, the company moved its operation to the Russian government-owned Skolkovo Innovation Center. Two years ago, it faced serious backlash for filters that allowed users to visualize what they’d look like if they were black or Southeast Asian. Today, FaceApp is the Apple and Android stores’ top-ranking app. It showed us what the Jonas brothers would look like in the year 3000.
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Is FaceApp stealing my picture?

It’s not every day we get to look into our phones and see the future. Despite the many miracles of technology, FaceApp’s aging and gender-swapping features still feel like magic. But if we’ve learned anything from season 3 of Stranger Things, it’s that the Russians, it would seem, are up to no good.
“Russians now own all your old photos,” reads the New York Post headline that stirred up a new wave of Cold War alarmism. The Post claimed that users granted the app permission to use, adapt, and distribute their image and likeness without ever telling you.
Senate Democrat Chuck Schumer wrote a letter to the Federal Trade Commision and the FBI urging authorities to intervene in what he thinks is a potential “national security and privacy risk” looming over millions of Americans.
But is FaceApp sleuthing through your phone so that Russian hackers can steal your picture and use them to make deep fakes? Not really. Yes, you can see your whole photo library from within the app but that is an Apple feature. FaceApp doesn’t have any more access to your likeness than Instagram or Huji.
Because time travel, AI, and “the Russians” live in the part of our social conscience labeled “do not trust,” reports began to surface online regarding FaceApp’s alleged ability to see and upload all your photos: “Including screenshots with sensitive financial or health information,” the New York Times explained, “or photos of kids with the names of their schools in the background.” But the Times goes on to conclude that, “That’s not actually true.”
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FaceApp broke down how its software uses users images in a statement published on TechCrunch on Wednesday. The company stated that your information is not transferred to Russia and that it does not sell or share data with third parties. It does, however, confirm that the image you do choose to upload might be stored. “We only upload a photo selected by a user for editing. We never transfer any other images from the phone to the cloud,” the statement reads. The company later adds that: “We might store an uploaded photo in the cloud. The main reason for that is performance and traffic.” But FaceApp assures that most images are deleted from its servers within 48 hours.

How to get FaceApp to delete my picture?

In its statement published on TechCrunch, FaceApp noted that it accepts requests from users to remove all their data from its servers. “Our support team is currently overloaded,” the company continued, “but these requests have our priority.” The best way to log a complaint is by going into the mobile app’s settings, reporting a bug and adding “privacy” in the subject line. “We are working on the better UI [user interface] for that,” it added.
You should be aware that, à la Westworld, apps and services that offer free fun with AI are very cost-efficient ways for companies to test and train their AI. Some have wondered if FaceApp is simply offering its free services so that its AI has a free dataset to learn and train on.
So, while FaceApp’s virality, Russian heritage, and AI element would make for an amazing Black Mirror episode, it doesn’t seem to pose a greater privacy or national security threat than most Facebook-supported apps. Do companies play fast and loose with our private data? Definitely. Why do terms of use and privacy policies make us feel like we’re signing away an unnecessary amount of our rights? Because they’re not made to protect us. We are right in our concerns over the distribution of private data, and the internet would be a much safer place it the power players were more transparent. But for now, playing around with a face filter will not bring about the demise of the Western world.
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