FaceApp went viral when it launched in 2017 for its highly realistic facial filters that make users look elderly, like the opposite gender, or like they are smiling, among other things. Recently, the app has come under public scrutiny. It’s owned and developed by a Russian company, Wireless Lab, which is based in Saint Petersburg, and contains a suspicious set of fine print that allows the app to send user data to its remote servers and gives the company perpetual license to distribute, reproduce and display all user photos.
Many Americans were unsettled by the seemingly invasive terms of service and were made even more so by the app’s nation of origin. Senator Chuck Schumer of New York said in a letter that he would like the F.B.I. and F.T.C. to investigate FaceApp, writing that it is “deeply troubling” that Americans’ personal data had been transferred to a “hostile foreign power.”
Wireless Lab claims that it deletes “most images” from its servers within 48 hours of uploading. If you want FaceApp to remove all of your data from its servers, you can send a request within the app by going to Settings > Support > Report a bug and putting “Privacy” in the subject line.
“Our support team is currently overloaded, but these requests have our priority,” FaceApp founder Yaroslav Goncharov said in a statement. The company also said that “the user data is not transferred to Russia,” but instead to its servers in the United States. However, some professionals say that developers should continue to be held more accountable. “I cannot think of any situation where an app should not be very painfully clear about a photo being uploaded to a remote server,” says Will Strafach, security researcher and developer of Guardian, an iOS firewall app. “Users always have the right to know this.”
Despite FaceApp receiving major backlash for its terms of service, popular social media apps like Facebook and Snapchat ask users for many of the same permissions. In fact, Facebook’s terms of service nearly mirrors FaceApp’s. “People give photos to lots of different apps. I think this is probably getting attention because it’s Russian developers,” says Christine Bannan, consumer protection counsel at the nonprofit Electronic Privacy Information Center. “But this is definitely not a unique FaceApp problem. FaceApp is part of a larger privacy problem.”
It’s important for consumers to know where their data is going and how it’s being used by companies. If you’re worried about your privacy, think twice before downloading something to your device—and it wouldn’t hurt to scan the fine print.