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The privacy panic over FaceApp

“The 360” is a feature designed to show you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories.

Speed read

What's happening: Anyone who used a social media site last week saw the images — photo after photo of faces that had been digitally altered to look older or younger or with different hair color. The images were created by FaceApp, an app that includes a variety of filters to change a person's appearance.

FaceApp has been around for a couple years, but recently saw a surge in popularity. More than 100 million people have reportedly downloaded the app, including many celebrities.

Shortly after last week’s viral surge, experts were vocal about their privacy concerns. By agreeing to the app's terms of service, users grant its creators "perpetual, irrevocable, nonexclusive, royalty-free, worldwide" ownership of images used in the app and the freedom to "use, reproduce, modify, adapt, publish [and] translate" them however they see fit.

There were also questions that the app might scrape data from a user’s mobile photo album, location, messages or other private information. These worries intensified when users learned that FaceApp's development team is based in Russia. The Democratic National Committee warned presidential candidates not to use the app. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer called on the FBI and the FTC to investigate its national security risks.

Why there's debate: Reports about FaceApp’s potential privacy issues led many people to worry they had unwittingly handed personal information to Russian hackers, but so far there’s little evidence that has happened. FaceApp's terms of service may sound troubling, but they're similar to agreements used by platforms like Facebook, Twitter or Instagram, experts say. The issues with Faceapp are seen by some as a microcosm of the way online privacy is routinely undermined.

Some argue that the backlash to FaceApp is a good thing because it shows that the public is becoming more aware of the importance of protecting digital data. Recent incidents in which high-profile brokers either failed to protect or deliberately gave away mass stores of personal data, some say, have taught consumers to be more careful about who they trust with their online lives.

What's next: Privacy experts recommend deleting FaceApp, though they concede there's no way to get back what the app has already sent to developers. When it comes to the broader issue of online privacy, some firms have started to receive pushback from lawmakers.

The credit bureau Equifax is expected to face a $650 million fine for exposing the sensitive information of 145 million people. Facebook recently received a $5 billion fine for its mishandling of privacy issues, although some argue that the fines are far too small to make the tech industry take privacy more seriously.

Perspectives

The terms of service give FaceApp's developers too much power over personal data.

"It’s also worth noting the company’s extremely broad terms of service, which appear to give FaceApp permission to do anything it wants with your images." — Michael Grothaus, Fast Company

FaceApp's terms of service are scary — but it’s not the only app that should worry you.

"FaceApp isn’t unique here. Many apps use similarly vague ― and frighteningly far-reaching ― boilerplate language in their terms and conditions. This should concern you about all apps, not just FaceApp" — Ryan Grenoble, HuffPost

FaceApp may be specifically designed to trick users into giving away data.

"There is the very real possibility that applications like these are simply honeypots designed to get you to give up information about yourself. You just sent them close-up, well-lit images of your face. Now they know your name and vital details and can create an annotated image record of you as a human." — Marc Boudria, Hypergiant vice president of technology, to Popular Mechanics

The reaction to FaceApp shows how worried users are about data privacy.

"[Experts] also have concluded that the heightened panic was not based on the evidence, but rather anxiety after multiple cataclysmic data breaches in recent years that have made people proactively — and reflexively — protective of their privacy." — Davey Alba, BuzzFeed

Big Tech shares some responsibility for allowing apps like this in their online stores.

"The bigger lesson was how much app-makers and the stores run by Apple and Google leave us flying blind when it comes to privacy." — Geoffrey A. Fowler, Washington Post

FaceApp shows that consumers are learning about the importance of data security.

"We care about our digital privacy but still don’t quite understand it. Which is what makes the last week potentially heartening in the long term. Privacy is complex and often dull and hard to get even concerned internet dwellers to pay attention to. This week, however, we’re paying attention." — Charlie Warzel, New York Times

Focusing on privacy issues with one app lets the rest of the industry off the hook. "Singling out individual viral trends is no different from shaking a fist at a banker when you’re mad at capitalism: We direct our ire at one another, and the noose continues to tighten."
— Sidney Fussel, The Atlantic

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