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Apps Come and Go but Our Privacy Doesn’t


For those of us who use social media, we are well aware of the current buzz and privacy controversy surrounding the uptake of an app called FaceApp and the viral online challenge it created known as the "FaceAppChallenge." FaceApp, which was actually launched in 2017, is an artificial intelligence photo app that allows a user to take a selfie, or use any copied picture of a person, and create a rendering of what they might look like in a few decades. Basically, the app digitally mutates and enhances an aging process so that you look older. As of the writing of this article, it is reported that FaceApp has a data base of over 150 million people who have downloaded their pictures to the FaceApp server.


It is our opinion that what really ignited the controversy over FaceApp, was the fact that:


#1: The developers are located in St. Petersburg, Russia, and

#2: their Terms of Service, which stated the following:


“You grant FaceApp a perpetual, irrevocable, nonexclusive, royalty-free, worldwide, fully-paid, transferable sub-licensable license 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.”


These two facts created what we believe to be a xenophobic online storm in some of the US media, likely because of the issues surrounding the last US presidential elections, that Russia would be harvesting this information and using it to their advantage. This concern was echoed by many in the media given that FaceApp is based in Russia, even though their main server is located in the USA. Although there is a possibility of Russia accessing and politically weaponizing information collected by FaceApp, many reputable internet security experts and investigative reporters have advised that the risk is very small. (1)


A further compounding factor that fanned the flames of moral panic and the conspiracy theories surrounding FaceApp was when the Democratic National Committee’s (DNC) chief security officer issued a warning to all of their 2020 presidential candidates not to use the app, telling them “If you or any of your staff have already used the app, we recommend that they delete the app immediately.”(2)


Our main question is why hasn’t the DNC also given the same warning about the very popular app TikTok, that is owned and based in China, and whose Terms of Service mirrors that of FaceApp?


TikTok Terms of Service

“You or the owner of your User Content still own the copyright in User Content sent to us, but by submitting User Content via the Services, you hereby grant us an unconditional irrevocable, non-exclusive, royalty-free, fully transferable, perpetual worldwide licence to use, modify, adapt, reproduce, make derivative works of, publish and/or transmit, and/or distribute and to authorise other users of the Services and other third-parties to view, access, use, download, modify, adapt, reproduce, make derivative works of, publish and/or transmit your User Content in any format and on any platform, either now known or hereinafter invented.”


Some would argue that given the current state of diplomatic chaos around the world, China is just as big of a threat to the United States’ 2020 presidential election as Russia (3,4).


Specific to the issues surrounding privacy and an app’s Terms of Service, other mainstream apps and social networks have very similar policies and end-user agreements:


Facebook and Instagram Terms of Service:

“To provide our services, though, we need you to give us some legal permissions to use that content. Specifically, 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”


Snapchat Terms of Service:

“you also grant us a perpetual license to create derivative works from, promote, exhibit, broadcast, syndicate, sublicense, publicly perform, and publicly display Public Content in any form and in any and all media or distribution methods (now known or later developed). To the extent it’s necessary, when you appear in, create, upload, post, or send Public Content, you also grant Snap Inc., our affiliates, and our business partners the unrestricted, worldwide, perpetual right and license to use your name, likeness, and voice, including in connection with commercial or sponsored content. This means, among other things, that you will not be entitled to any compensation from Snap Inc., our affiliates, or our business partners if your name, likeness, or voice is conveyed through the Services, either on the Snapchat application or on one of our business partner’s platforms.”


YouTube Terms of Service:

“However, by submitting Content to YouTube, you hereby grant YouTube a worldwide, non-exclusive, royalty-free, sublicenseable and transferable license to use, reproduce, distribute, prepare derivative works of, display, and perform the Content in connection with the Service and YouTube's (and its successors' and affiliates') business, including without limitation for promoting and redistributing part or all of the Service (and derivative works thereof) in any media formats and through any media channels. You also hereby grant each user of the Service a non-exclusive license to access your Content through the Service, and to use, reproduce, distribute, display and perform such Content as permitted through the functionality of the Service and under these Terms of Service.”


We are not saying that there aren’t privacy issues that should concern us all about the use of FaceApp; there certainly are. However, these same concerns can also be said of Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Snapchat, and TikTok.


It appears that FaceApp, because of its Russian ties and the current US political climate, has become the tipping point, and now the lightning rod, as it relates to our personal information online and how it can be harvested, sold, or used for overt or covert reasons by big data or even State sponsored actors.


As we all know, apps come and go. What is popular today will be forgotten in years, months, and sometimes even weeks when it comes to the use of social media and apps. Situational awareness surrounding online safety, security, and the protection of our privacy should be a keystone. What we say and post online matters, and what others do with the information that we post online matters. With the convenience of a free app comes the vulnerability that the same app is likely harvesting and monetizing our private information that we are posting for their financial gain. Nothing is ever free when it comes to many of the “free” social networks and apps that many of us use such as FaceApp, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, YouTube, or TikTok. No matter what the app or social network if it is free we are likely giving up our privacy to what is being posted for the financial or intelligence gain of others. Personal data collection has become the new oil boom of the 21st century, and this should concern us all. This is why teaching good digital literacy specific to this issue, starting in grade school, is so important in our opinion. Although today’s xenophobic media attention is focused on FaceApp, we can guarantee you that it will be another app released in the not so distant future that is not owned or operated in Russia, if we take our eye off the online privacy and security ball.


There is a well-deserved privacy reckoning taking place with many apps and social networks, and rightly so. Having said this, let’s not just focus on one app (FaceApp) to the exclusion of all the others that are basically doing the same thing.


Digital Food for Thought

- Darren


(1) https://www.forbes.com/sites/thomasbrewster/2019/07/17/faceapp-is-the-russian-face-aging-app-a-danger-to-your-privacy/#45e31e082755

(2) https://www.cnn.com/2019/07/17/politics/dnc-warning-faceapp/index.html

(3) https://ca.finance.yahoo.com/news/how-china-could-meddle-in-the-2020-election-163053951.html

(4) https://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy/article/3016290/china-our-biggest-threat-say-four-democrat-contenders-white

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