Arts

@LARGE | Michael Andor Brodeur

How FaceApp got your data, and why you gave it to them

The author seen before and after the FaceApp aging process.
The author seen before and after the FaceApp aging process.

It started about a week ago — a rash of early-onset aging, creeping through my timeline.

With no explanation, most of the photos filling my feed comprised a portal of sorts into the future. My friends had all visibly aged by about 30 years; Gen-Xers gone full boomer in the blink of an app. Their eyes ringed by wrinkles, their cheeks softened into jowls, their hair thinned to a faint fuzz or zapped stark white overnight Leland Palmer style (but slightly less creepy). Oh, and their data hoovered by Russians. You couldn’t really see that part.

I mean, unless you read the Terms and Conditions of FaceApp, a new facial transformation app created by Russian company Wireless Lab, which lay out in no uncertain terms (nor conditions) that — much like most that do wacky things to your face for your entertainment — it requires 1. access to your photos and 2. a license, which is not short for creative license.

Advertisement

It’s actually short for “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.”

Get The Weekender in your inbox:
The Globe's top picks for what to see and do each weekend, in Boston and beyond.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

Or as former Rackspace VP Rob La Gesse posted to Facebook (along with the hashtag #Delete): “To make FaceApp actually work, you have to give it permissions to access your photos — ALL of them. But it also gains access to Siri and Search. Why? Not for anything good for you, I bet. It tightly integrates with Siri on your iPhone — and I can’t believe Apple allows this with just granting access to your photos. Oh, and it has access to refreshing in the background — so even when you are not using it, it is using you.”

But — and hear me out — you get to see if you’re hot or not when you’re old. Seems like a pretty fair trade, said 150 million people.

No one knows quite yet if FaceApp is some dumbed-down consumer-level Cambridge Analytica for the 2020 coronation of Emperor Trump, or if, realistic warts and all, FaceApp is just the latest flash-in-the-pan AI app with poorly timed boilerplate user end agreements. 

For its part, FaceApp founder Yaroslav Goncharov responded with a statement this week to the widespread privacy concerns (and moisturizer sales) triggered by the spread of the app — including the been-burned-before Democratic National Committee issuing a party-wide warning to campaigns to delete it from their phones.

Advertisement

“FaceApp performs most of the photo processing in the cloud. We only upload a photo selected by a user for editing,” the statement read, along with a list of other assurances like, “We don’t sell or share any user data with any third parties,” and “Even though the core R&D team is located in Russia, the user data is not transferred to Russia.” 

All of which I’m sure sounds even more convincing in Russian, and in any language doesn’t amount to much of an assurance about anything, given how cloud security has proven itself about as secure as an actual cloud. 

But despite all of the proverbial red flags — the app’s sweeping permission requests, its home office in St. Petersburg, its gimmicky one-and-done functionality, and its borderline obvious capability as a harvester of faces for everything from algorithm training to deepfake production — everyone I know (and millions I don’t) couldn’t download it fast enough. And whether you did or didn’t hardly mattered; both my husband and I had our elderly selves texted to us by friends who’d saved us the trouble (and spared St. Petersburg our respective browsing histories). 

We make so much of the importance of privacy, and expend so much anguish over our safety online; so why are we such suckers when it comes to forking over our data? Like most everything else on the Internet, it’s a matter of instant gratification.

I felt it myself when I looked at myself in the insta-aged pic my friend forwarded: It was me, but slightly weathered, deeply wrinkled, yet apparently as happy as I was in middle age. (If there’s a non-narcotic dopamine high to be had in these times, it’s a vision of yourself with a smile in 30 years.)

Advertisement

From Narcissus’s pond to “Dorian Gray” to the MeMoji kit that comes tucked into my iPhone’s new OS, nothing can lure us closer to the precipice than our own reflections. And to some extent, we still expect to see the future when we gaze into the enchanted mirrors of our smartphones — FaceApp just delivers a very believable glimpse of it: Older, yes. But any wiser? Alas, no one’s figured out an app for that.

Michael Andor Brodeur can be reached at mbrodeur@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MBrodeur