(Instagram@Nickjonas)
(Instagram@Nickjonas)

Opinion | The fuss over FaceApp could be just another US-Russia face-off

Russia’s FaceApp was the most downloaded app in America last week, causing alarm ahead of next year’s presidential poll

Last week, Mint reported on FaceApp, which recently went viral. The app allows users to upload a photograph of themselves and shows them how they would look as they age. This seems like a harmless game, which many of us would like to try out, and so its virality shouldn’t be a surprise. Last Wednesday, the app was the most downloaded smartphone app in the US.

By itself, the app going viral shouldn’t have been newsworthy as the use of facial-recognition technology is now widespread. Also, this is not the first time that the app has gone viral. It went viral in 2017 when it launched filters that would show you what your face would look like if you were Asian, African-American, Indian or White. That caused an unexpected uproar because of its racial undertones. The app took down the filters within hours.

Mint’s recent reportage, however, wasn’t just about how the app had gone viral, it also focused on how activists were concerned about how the data would be subsequently used. Most concerns centred around the type of terms of service that users were agreeing to on the app with respect to the images of their face. That licence read “a perpetual, irrevocable, non-exclusive, royalty-free, worldwide, fully-paid, transferable sub-licensable licence to use, reproduce, modify, adapt, publish, translate, create derivative works from, distribute, publicly perform and display your user content and any name, username or likeness provided in connection with your user content in all media formats and channels now known or later developed, without compensation to you". So, in simple English, this means that the company behind FaceApp can do anything it wants, anywhere in the world, now and forever, with your face.

The irony is that this isn’t very different than the rights we give Facebook, whose terms of service say “when you share, post, or upload content that is covered by intellectual property rights (like photos or videos) on or in connection with our products, you grant us a non-exclusive, transferable, sub-licensable, royalty-free, and worldwide license to host, use, distribute, modify, run, copy, publicly perform or display, translate, and create derivative works of your content (consistent with your privacy and application settings)".

The real problem is that FaceApp is Russian. The app is owned by a firm called Wireless Lab OOO, which is headquartered in St. Petersburg, Russia. Yaroslav Goncharov, the creator of the app, sent clarifications to the American media asserting that despite the terms of service, the app only uploads photos that the user chooses and does not use images for anything other than the express purposes of the app. The US business magazine Forbes reported that the company’s servers are mostly in the US, hosted by Amazon’s data centres. The firm said that some servers are hosted by Google, too, across other countries, including Ireland and Singapore. While no data is physically resident in Russia, it is safe to assume that FaceApp employees located in Russia have access to the data.

The reason that its sudden “virality" last week became an issue is that Americans are still smarting from Russian interference in their 2016 presidential election. Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer wrote a letter to American authorities, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Federal Trade Commission, expressing concerns that the app has proliferated across several social media channels. The senior senator from New York said he believed that the app “could pose national security and privacy risks for millions of US citizens". He said that “it would be deeply troubling if the sensitive personal information of US citizens was provided to a hostile foreign power engaged in cyber hostilities against the United States".

Some weeks ago, I wrote in this column that the next cold war battle lines could well be around facial-recognition technology. Apart from concerns about Russia, Americans are also concerned about China, whose increasing “aid" to other countries that seek to use this technology has not escaped attention. The “aid" money goes into buying surveillance cameras and facial-recognition technology from Chinese giants such as Hikvision and Zhejiang Dahua. The US government has banned both firms from selling their equipment to its law-enforcing agencies. Many of the cameras also use chips from telecom giant Huawei, which is at the centre of the US-China face-off.

US companies are not far from the eye of the storm either. Earlier this year, Apple Inc. was sued for $1 billion by a teenager who said that the company’s facial-recognition technology falsely linked him to thefts at an Apple store. Ousmane Bah, a student living in New York, claimed in the lawsuit that he was arrested and charged for the crimes after being mistakenly identified through the Apple technology.

About this time last year, Rekognition, Amazon’s open application programming interface for facial recognition, made news for showing startling results on a test run by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). ACLU conducted a test where it scanned the faces of all 535 members of US Congress against 25,000 public mugshots (photos of arrested people and/or criminals). No one member of Congress was in those mugshots, but Amazon’s system generated 28 false matches, with obvious implications. Amazon responded by saying that the ACLU’s tests were run at its default confidence threshold of 80%, and not at the 95% recommended by the company for law enforcement applications, where false identification can have serious consequences. That said, ACLU had made its point.

Lawmakers mistakenly identified as law breakers? Now maybe that will get some attention.

Siddharth Pai is founder of Siana Capital, a venture fund management company focused on deep science and tech in India

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