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ASK DR. SECURITY: Is it safe for my privacy to use FaceApp?

Jul 19, 2019

Claudio Marforio

By Claudio Marforio

Jul 19, 2019

 - By Claudio Marforio

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Very interesting question, and for sure a very actual one. Let me try to address this question using a Question and Answer Format. Here we go!

Dr. Security, after years of answering online questions.

What is FaceApp?

The Internet is buzzing about a new feature of the FaceApp mobile application that lets you upload a selfie of yours and, using AI, retouches your face to show you how you might look like when you grow older. The app has been around since 2017 and offers a range of filters to touch up your face in a variety of ways, but this new feature made the app go viral, with reports stating that since its launch it has gathered hundreds of millions of photos of people's faces.

What are the privacy concerns for using FaceApp?

Given the popularity, the app has gone under scrutiny, which has equally generated a buzz on how harmful to privacy and unsafe it is to hand over your photos to the app. The concern is based on the fact that the company behind the app is based in Russia and that its privacy policy states that the company can store and use your photos essentially for how long and for any reason they want. Even though the company stated that most images are deleted from their servers within 48 hours, users still worry that their face could be used for privacy invasive reasons, such as to track and identify them via facial recognition technology.

Are the privacy concerns real?

While it's true that the photo of your face you uploaded to FaceApp could be eventually used to invade your privacy, so it's true for any photo of you that can be found on the Internet. If you are a social media user, just think of all the photos of you that you, or even your friends, may have uploaded and shared on platforms like LinkedIn, Facebook and Instagram. Also, maybe you, being cautious, decide not to use FaceApp, but nothing prevents a curious friend of yours, to use one of your selfies you posted on social media, in order to check on FaceApp how you will be looking when you are in your 60s.

In case you are worried that your photo will be used to train a facial recognition system for your face, keep in mind that typically such training would require more pictures of you, so a single photo would most probably not be sufficient. As mentioned above, there are also be much easier means for obtaining photos of a specific target individual from social media platforms.

In case you are worried that your photo, together with the photos of the rest of FaceApp uses, will give the company the ability to conduct AI-based research on face analysis/modification/detection/generation and other similar privacy-concerning technologies, it's worth noting that there exist a lot of publicly accessible databases of face photos on the Internet (made of public media scraped from the Internet) which anyone could use for conducting research in these technologies.

If anything, FaceApp would most likely use your photo for marketing and advertising, which is exactly what Facebook, Instagram and all other free social media platform are doing: Leverage the huge amount of user-generated content to do more effective advertising and make a profit out of it.

All the above, as well as the FaceApp case in particular, shows how much control we have already lost, and keep losing, over our digital data.

Is it safe for my privacy to use FaceApp?

Assuming that you already have a footprint of digital data about yourself online (Facebook, Whatsapp, Instagram, Snapchat, LinkedIn, Xing, etc.), I would argue that it will not make much of a difference for your privacy whether you use FaceApp or not. Even more so, anyone can download your profile picture, from say Facebook, and load it onto the FaceApp application to have some fun! – Be attentive, try to protect yourself online to the best you can. But in the end, we now live in a connected society: live and have fun, and maybe someday, you will check back at your FaceApp picture and play a “find the difference” game.

I am happy to answer your questions, so do not hesitate to write to the Doctor at: doctor@futurae.com.

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