South Africans are using a viral app to make themselves look old - but there are questions about the Russian company behind it

Business Insider US
  • A popular photo ageing app called FaceApp, currently trending in South Africa again, has come under fire.
  • Some users are concerned about what happens to their photos once they're uploaded to the Russian app.
  • FaceApp's terms of service allow them to use your photos and likeness for advertisements and other purposes, but it's not exactly clear what those other purposes are.
  • As with all apps, users should be careful about sharing their photos and personal information online.
  • For more stories, go to Business Insider SA.

FaceApp is the most popular free app on Google Play and Apple's App Store thanks to an age filter that makes people in photos look much older.

While countless photos of aged celebrities and casual FaceApp users have been shared online in the past week, users, including many in South Africa, said FaceApp might be uploading their library in the background since it can still access photos even if the settings are set at ‘never’ allow photo access.

Former president Jacob Zuma also got the FaceApp treatment.

The Russian artificial intelligence (AI) photo editor made its debut on the internet two years ago. Similar augmented reality photo apps have been widely used on SnapChat as a catfish tool, as you could swap your gender.

Like others of its ilk, the photo editing app uploads your photo to the cloud where it is manipulated. Users can edit faces to make them look older and even make grumpy presidents smile. The latest update now allows users to defy age and see what they would look like if they were younger or older.

Understanding FaceApp's policy on paper

FacaApp privacy policy.
FacaApp privacy policy.

FaceApp's terms of service give the company licence to use photos and other information uploaded by users for commercial purposes, including their names, likenesses, and voices. The terms of service also say that FaceApp may continue to store user data after it's deleted from the app. The company said the data could be retained to comply with "certain legal obligations," but there is no limitation on how long the data can be kept.

Furthermore, FaceApp's privacy policy says that all information collected by the app can be stored and transferred to whichever countries FaceApp and its affiliates operate from. This means user photos and app data can be stored in Russia, the country where the app's development team is based. TechCrunch reported that FaceApp is using servers owned by Google and Amazon in the US

FaceApp issued a statement to address privacy concerns

FaceApp provided TechCrunch with an itemised statement to clarify its policy amid the privacy concerns. Though the terms of service suggest that data can still be transferred to the Russian development team, the company says user data remains on the server side. FaceApp says photos stored on the server are kept to make the editing process more efficient for its users and that the photos are usually deleted within two days.

The company said it also accepted user requests to remove all personal data from their servers. However, FaceApp said the support team was backlogged with those requests. FaceApp also says 99% of users choose not to log in, so they don't have much in the way of identifying information.

Russian tech companies face increased skepticism

Last year, the former special counsel Robert Mueller's office charged more than a dozen Russian citizens with crimes related to a vast social-media campaign meant to influence the 2016 presidential election. The St. Petersburg, Russia-based Internet Research Agency used false identities on Facebook, Twitter, and other social-media platforms to spread fake news and propaganda.

While the actions of some bad actors in Russia should not condemn every Russian-based company, some FaceApp users and critics are reasonably concerned that their names and photos uploaded to FaceApp could end up being misused or leaked to the wrong company. FaceApp's statement said they wouldn't sell data to third-party companies and that data was not being transferred to Russia.

iOS loophole

There are some additional security concerns with the iOS version of FaceApp because of the way iPhones handle photo security. While users can block FaceApp and other apps from viewing their full photo libraries through the iPhone's settings, TechCrunch reported on a loophole in iOS 11 that gives apps permission to access one photo at a time if the user grants permission.

So far, security experts have not detected any unusual practices with the current version of FaceApp, but as with all apps, users should be mindful of their lack of control when sharing photos and other personal data. French security research Robert BapisteTechCrunch, and Guardian App’s CEO, Will Strafach, say that FaceApp’s issues are not as bad as they are thought to be.

All three have determined that FaceApp doesn’t upload your camera roll in the background.

The one thing that is questionable about FaceApp is that it uploads the photo to the cloud, in order to process it. And consent for that is vague since FaceApp doesn’t explicitly point out that particular part of its functionality. 

(Additional reporting by Business Insider South Africa.)

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