Monday 19 August 2019

Just call me Wrinkler: why FaceApp may not be your online privacy doom

Adrian Weckler — with the shape of things to come — after he aged his looks using FaceApp
Adrian Weckler — with the shape of things to come — after he aged his looks using FaceApp
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

Worried about FaceApp? Afraid that your mug might be added to a new master file of facial imprints that shady Russian operators will pawn to the web's worst elements? Relax. The worst you'll likely get is a slagging from your WhatsApp mates. Because the face-ageing app that everyone is either posting on social media or freaking out about on social media has little more threat to it than Facebook, Google, Twitter or any number of apps you already use.

Yes, the Irish Data Protection Commissioner issued a statement about it, following her UK equivalent. And yes, the FBI sounded a more urgent note, warning that your face might end up on a Russian server. But is there any real substance to this fear? Or is it just a bit of good old-fashioned techno-panic?

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"Hold on now, it's a Russian app," you say. "And you know, who knows what the Russians will do with it?"

Oh, those Russians. As we speak, Kremlin spymasters are constructing the real-life equivalent of the Temple of the Many-Faced God in Game Of Thrones' fictional island city Braavos.

Your face - one of an estimated 150 million now uploaded through the app - will surely adorn one of these illicit digital temple walls, to be used as cover for everything from hacking attacks on nuclear facilities to political interference in western elections, all while Vladimir Putin looks on, smirking. And all for the greater glory of Mother Russia, right?

I have to tell you: if you believe some version of this, wait until you hear what Facebook, Google and Twitter do with your personal data.

Wait until you find out about what these American companies do, tracking you all around the internet. About how they use and store your locations. And compile charts of who your friends are. And even pore over your voice commands through their 'smart speakers'.

Yes, FaceApp's terms and conditions purport to grant the company (Wireless Labs) a "perpetual, irrevocable, worldwide licence to use, adapt, publicly display and create derivative works from" your image. And yes, in theory, that could mean billboard ads with your face selling Viagra in Vladivostok.

But these are actually boiler-plate terms that many online services use. Here are Facebook's current equivalent terms, which include matching your profile to ads it wants to sell: "You grant us a non-exclusive, transferable, sub-licensable, royalty-free and worldwide licence to host, use, distribute, modify, run, copy, publicly perform or display, translate and create derivative works of your content."

And here are Twitter's terms: "You grant us a worldwide, non-exclusive, royalty-free licence (with the right to sub-licence) to use, copy, reproduce, process, adapt, modify, publish, transmit, display and distribute such content in any and all media or distribution methods (now known or later developed)."

See a pattern? On specific fears that FaceApp uploads your entire camera roll of photos, it almost certainly doesn't if you believe an array of independent security researchers. FaceApp says that it only uploads individual photos.

On storing photos in Russia, as the FBI suggests, FaceApp CEO Yaroslav Goncharov says this isn't actually the case and that most of the photos are stored in the US on Amazon servers. Who's more likely to tap into US data servers, the Russian FSB or the CIA?

And on using your face photo for anything else, FaceApp claims that it doesn't sell any user data to third parties. (Of course, that's also the formula of words that Facebook uses. And we know that Facebook leverages your user data to the hilt to sell advertising.)

To be clear, it's a great thing that this topic is getting attention. This column has argued many times that data privacy is an important thing. So anything that puts a spotlight on our online browsing habits is good.

But does FaceApp really represent any new, scary threat the likes of which we haven't seen before?

Please. Facebook now knows so much about our behaviour and future needs that many of you even believe the company is physically listening to our phone conversations. (It's not.)

And we feed all of this, because we want to chat or vent, or post photos, or join community groups.

So if you're genuinely worried about FaceApp, why are you still using Facebook and Google and Twitter; apps that hoover up our data to commercially leverage the bejesus out of it?

This is a rhetorical question. We all know why. You like being connected, or free texting and calls. You like a powerful, free search engine.

You like ranting about a news-related event in 240 characters. You like free email that sends huge files.

You like all of these things more than you fear the downsides of compromising your personal privacy. No amount of privacy scandals (such as Cambridge Analytica) or media warnings (weekly, if not daily) dents your decision to use them.

So spare us the hysteria over a 'Russian' app with the same boiler-plate privacy terms as the apps you enthusiastically use every day.

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