Russian FaceApp Stirs Controversy, but Facebook Far More Intrusive

A Russian-designed application on Facebook called FaceApp that takes a photo of the user and “ages” it by decades quickly became ubiquitous this month, prompting calls for caution in its use by both government and tech leaders after a tweet raised concerns. FaceApp has been around since 2017.

Wireless Lab, based in St. Petersburg, Russia, developed FaceApp. But according to a Washington Post story, the photos are stored on servers run by American companies, so the company’s intent may not be as sinister as it seems. checked hosting records and found that, “The servers for were based in Amazon data centers in the U.S. The company told Forbes that some servers were hosted by Google too, across other countries, including Ireland and Singapore. And, as noted by Alderson, the app also uses third-party code, and so will reach out to their servers, but again these are based in the U.S. and Australia.”

New York Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer asked the FBI and the Federal Trade Commission to investigate the potential for national security and privacy violations, according to a story from the Reuters wire service. The Democratic National Committee also warned candidates against using the app, which gathers information on friends and connections when users opt in.

An opinion piece by Kara Swisher, who covers technology for The New York Times, warned against giving personal information to an authoritarian country known for exploiting Facebook to spread lies and propaganda, as in the 2016 election. An attendee at the Aspen Security Forum, where the app gained a lot of attention and stimulated debate about allowing global companies access to consumer data.

Swisher wrote the issue, “includes thinking hard about what kind of leverage collecting all that data could give to governments that have fewer concerns about protecting the privacy of their citizens and whether there should be more safeguards as global debate over cybersafety escalates.”

At the conference, some attendees talked about creating a digital “Berlin Wall” separating the free West internet from the Cold War internet, Swisher writes. Others suggested forming “ ‘sovereign clouds,’ storage limited to a specific group of users, that would create strong borders of digital participation, not just among and between countries but also among and between companies.”

Wired magazine’s Brian Barrett, who covers security, warned that all apps deserve scrutiny for how each will use your information. He asserts that Facebook takes the most liberties of any app.

“Facebook has nearly 2.5 billion monthly active users to FaceApp’s 80 million,” Barrett writes. “It, too, applies facial recognition to photos that those users upload to its servers. It also actively pushed a VPN that allowed it to track the activity of anyone who installed it not just within the Facebook app but anywhere on their phone. When Apple finally banned that app, Facebook snuck it in again through the backdoor. And that’s before you get to the privacy violations that have led to a reported $5 billion fine from the FTC, a record by orders of magnitude.”

The biggest issue at the Aspen conference, Swisher wrote, was the race for tech dominance between the United States and China. FaceApp wasn’t part of the equation.

“What’s been most clear in the efforts by American officials to throttle back the Chinese tech-giant Huawei from being the one to build next-generation 5G cellphone networks across the world.”

That theme was one of the overall points made by Adm. Philip Davidson, head of the United States Indo-Pacific Command, in a talk titled “Military Competition with China: Maintaining America’s Edge.” The admiral said keeping up is a matter of national security, because China could exceed American tech in the region by 2050.

The FaceApp brouhaha points out, however, that most users have little idea about how companies mine their data, which is the crux of the problem.

According to the Washington Post: “Neema Singh Guliani, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, said the panic around FaceApp reflects a broader frustration from people about how their data can be misused, in large part because federal privacy laws can do little against invasive terms of service or privacy policies.”