The Atlantic reached out for comment to FaceApp, but did not receive a reply by the time of publication.
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Think of these callouts as a mantra someone afraid of flying says during takeoff. Calling out users for not worrying about privacy when they use these misleading apps lets naysayers pretend their worrying matters. The United States has yet to regulate big companies on its own turf, let alone Russia, but if more people felt the grip of omnisurveillance, the thinking goes, we might be able to.
This is a silly blame game and a distraction. FaceApp is not just FaceApp’s fault. Data collection is the plumbing of the modern web, and FaceApp is but one of millions of pipes. The app was vetted by Apple’s App Store and even labeled “Editors Choice” in the Google Play store. Google directly receives data from FaceApp, an examination of its trackers show, as does Facebook. In fact, Wired draws a direct line from FaceApp’s terms of service—which grants it “perpetual, irrevocable, nonexclusive, royalty-free, worldwide, fully-paid, transferable [and] sub-licensable” access to your photos—and Facebook’s, which “grant[s] a non-exclusive, transferable, sub-licensable, royalty-free, and worldwide license.” What are FaceApp’s estimated 80 million users compared with Facebook’s more than 2 billion?
FaceApp’s scale is what’s most dangerous about it. The repercussions go above and beyond even its exploding user base. While 80 million people have said yes to the app, countless more will face consequences if the data are misused. Consider one scenario: A bad actor uses the uploaded photos to summon a bot army pushing misinformation on social media, all with profile photos pulled from FaceApp’s servers. This wouldn’t even require FaceApp to be a malicious actor; it could be hacked.
When you download FaceApp or Meitu, you’re asked a piecemeal series of questions, carefully framed to shift responsibility away from corporate actors and onto the user: Do you consent to having your photo taken? Do you permit access to your device and to your photos? Privacy policies always frame the terms of service as personal consumer choices. Yes, the choice to download and upload is yours, but the ramifications are far-reaching. Data collected for one purpose can always be used for another. Some of the worst misuses of face data come from one bad actor seizing on thousands of people who, as far as they knew, agreed to take on the responsibility themselves.