The FaceApp and the photo challenge associated with it that blew up over the last few days have brought the application under severe scrutiny, in the wake of a wave of worry and panic. FaceApp is a photo manipulation mobile phone app that uses machine learning to modify users' photos in various ways, most famously to artificially age the user's face. Despite its humorous goal, the FaceApp challenge, taken up by millions, including many celebrities and media personalities, raised serious concerns in the U.S.
The source of the panic stems from FaceApp's developers being Russian. This alone provoked the Democratic National Committee to warn people involved in the upcoming 2020 Democratic presidential campaigns against using the app over fears of Russian hackers, as reported by CNN. Senator Chuck Schumer even went so far as to formally request that the FBI and FTC launch an investigation into FaceApp and its developer.
Is there justifiable concern for the safety of those using the FaceApp?
The FaceApp scare was started by a tweet stating that the app could be taking your phone's entire photo storage and dumping it to a remote server. This prompted a French security researcher, going by the handle of Elliot Alderson, to poke around the app. He found that only photos users manually select are uploaded and the servers they end up on are a mix of Amazon and Google data centers, located in the U.S., Europe, and Singapore.
Another concern was why FaceApp needs to process the images server-side and not locally on the user's device. The most likely answer is quite simple - the machine learning algorithm needs those photos to improve, and your phone has immeasurably less processing power than a server.
FaceApp founder Yaroslav Yaroslav Goncharov also made an official statement to news outlet TechCrunch, claiming that user data is neither shared with or sold to third parties, nor is it ever transferred to Russia. Additionally, Goncharov stated that user photos uploaded for processing are deleted within 48 hours. Users can also request all their data deleted, even if the process is a little complicated at the moment and involves reporting a bug through the app interface and using the word "privacy" as the subject of the report.
It is unlikely that the privacy concerns around FaceApp are going to stop regular people from using it, but at any rate the scare shows how sensitive the Internet has become to possible privacy issues, especially in the wake of the recent Facebook privacy scandal and the multiple data breaches of huge companies over the last couple of years.