Russia-based FaceApp goes viral, gets a closer look

Gray hair, deep wrinkles and sagging skin: That is most everyone's fate as they age, much as young people may want to deny it. Yet now it seems everyone can't wait to get old.

That's what FaceApp promises. People can watch themselves grow old in just a few seconds. All it takes is a user-generated photo and a few taps. Social media outlets are now full of wrinkly faces, a craze started by celebrities around the world.

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Celebrities and makeovers

French DJ star David Guetta suddenly looks decades older. Boyband Jonas Brothers find themselves in the year 3000. And it's not just celebrities: My future self bears a striking resemblance to my father and grandfather. No more need for a paternity test, thanks to FaceApp.

The app is a good example of how easily images can be convincingly manipulated. FaceApp is driven by artificial intelligence, which understands how aging works and can apply that information realistically to any face.

And it's not just aging. FaceApp can take a few years off, offer a new hairstyle or grow facial hair — good enough for users who don't mind settling for virtual bangs or a hipster beard. Bigger changes require a bigger investment: additional features, such as a mustache, are available only for a one-off price of €44, or a €20 annual subscription ($50 and $22.50, respectively).

Millions of people around the world seem to be enjoying FaceApp's features. The app is the number one download in both Android and iOS app stores — a huge success for the Russian developer, Wireless Lab, but one that was anything but instant. The app has been around for about two years. It appears to be mere coincidence that only now celebrities have come across it and launched it to stardom.

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Elderly photos for Putin?

It didn't take long for the success to turn to criticism. Wireless Lab is based in St. Petersburg, which the app's terms and conditions make clear. Little else is known about the company. A closer look at those T&Cs may suck out some of the app's frivolity. The company not only collects user data, but also stores the images that users upload. Critics worry that the Russian government can access this information.

Yaroslav Goncharov, FaceApp's CEO, denies that Russian President Vladimir Putin has any reason to do anything with the millions of wrinkly faces on the app. Only the original image from the user gets uploaded and processed, he's said, which could also be done locally in the app, but performance is improved by uploading images to the cloud.

Its servers are not in Russia, but in places such as the United States, Singapore and Ireland, and belong to Amazon or Google. Most images are deleted within 48 hours. Except for advertisers, third parties do not receive any metadata, similar to how Google and Facebook say they handle data.

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An 'adversary' at work

Critics aren't taking Goncharov's statements at face value. Personal data can fall into the wrong hands, said Germany's data protection chief, Ulrich Kelber. He's called the app's terms of use "too vague."

In the US, a Russian company collecting data and saving photos is enough to sound the alarm. US lawmakers have been on high alert for Russian cybermeddling since its involvement in the 2016 presidential election. The FBI may soon be taking a closer look at FaceApp. Chuck Schumer, the Senate minority leader from New York, wrote the FBI and US Federal Trade Commission, asking that FaceApp be investigated for possible transfer Americans' personal data to third parties — in this case, perhaps an "adversarial" one.

"FaceApp's location in Russia raises questions regarding how and when the company provides access to the data of US citizens to third parties, including foreign governments," Schumer wrote. "I have serious concerns regarding both the protection of the data that is being aggregated as well as whether users are aware of who may have access to it."

The Democratic National Committee has warned presidential candidates not to use FaceApp in case Wireless Lab is covertly sharing data.

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Much still unclear

In the wake of the political outrage, experts have weighed in to ease the panic. A French cybersecurity expert who goes by the pseudonym Elliot Alderson told Britain's Guardian newspaper that only selected user-uploaded photos get processed by the app. That contradicts previous internet rumors that suggested the app takes all the images from a user's phone.

Like many other apps, FaceApp appears to take a phone's model and serial number to analyze how the app is used. That would suggest it is only the app's Russian headquarters that is the largest cause for concern, the French expert said. It remains unclear if and for what other purposes user images could be used. Whether the app can realistically predict how a user looks in old age is also a question that remains unanswered.