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How FaceApp highlights a gap in U.S. privacy protections

The growing popularity of FaceApp, a photo filter app that allows users to transform their features by adding or removing wrinkles, is sounding alarm bells among privacy advocates and lawmakers. There are questions about how the images of people's faces could be used, especially as the app's company is based in Russia. Amna Nawaz talks to the Center for Democracy & Technology’s Joseph Jerome.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The growing popularity of a new digital application called FaceApp, a photo filter that allows users to transform their features by adding wrinkles or taking them away, is sounding alarm bells among privacy advocates and members of Congress.

    It sparks questions about how the images of U.S. citizens and their faces could be used by foreign governments.

    Amna Nawaz has the story.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That's right, Judy.

    At first, it seemed fun. Celebrities like LeBron James were uploading pictures of themselves using FaceApp to make them appear older. A number of other celebrities have joined in, comedian and actor Kevin Hart, for example, and the former boy band the Jonas Brothers.

    But then the fun turned to wrinkle-causing worry in some quarters. That's partially because of the location of FaceApp headquarters, St. Petersburg, Russia, and because the Democratic National Committee warned campaigns not to engage on FaceApp.

    Let's clarify what those concerns are about and the larger picture around all of this.

    Joseph Jerome is with the Center for Democracy and Technology, a nonprofit that aims to protect the privacy rights of Internet users and advocates for stronger legal controls on government surveillance.

    Joseph, welcome to the "NewsHour."

  • Joseph Jerome:

    Thank you for having me.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So let's talk about the concerns.

    People are wondering, where are my photos going and how are they being used? Are those legitimate concerns?

  • Joseph Jerome:

    I think that's a good question, but I think it's the wrong question.

    This is a perfect privacy sort of storm of what happens when our information and, frankly, our privacy is protected by really bad, overbroad and poorly drafted privacy policies.

    So FaceApp has been pretty clear. You can go to its privacy policy and see what it does with this information. It makes products better. It shares anonymous information with some people. It makes this information available to law enforcement.

    It basically gives itself broad rights to do whatever he wants with this information. But that's almost every application we use online these days.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    It's not unique in that way?

  • Joseph Jerome:

    No, I don't think it's unique at all.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    But you said something there that caught a lot of people's attention. It uses it with law enforcement? What does that mean?

  • Joseph Jerome:

    Sure.

    Well, here's the thing. All applications, all information is subject to lawful access requests for information. This is true of local U.S. American law enforcement.

    I think what has sort of gotten people confused here, or at least sort of upset, is that this is based in Russia. And, obviously, a company that is based in Russia is under Russian jurisdiction, which means that information is available to Russian law enforcement.

    And the broad access through which Russians' law enforcement get information is probably surprising to American consumers.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    OK, so there are some concerns about that, as we said there in the introduction.

    Senator Chuck Schumer expressed some of those concerns today very explicitly. Take a listen to what he had to say.

  • Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.:

    This is breathtaking level of access, all too common in murky apps like these, that raise very substantial privacy concerns. We need more than the assurances. We need the facts.

    The potential for our facial data and the data from all of our friends and family contained in our photos to fall into the hands of something like Russian intelligence or the Russian military is really troubling.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    There's obviously heightened concern about how Russian officials use information gained from social media and other platforms.

  • Joseph Jerome:

    Sure.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Is that concern legitimate here?

  • Joseph Jerome:

    So I can certainly understand why Democrats, after the 2016 election, are concerned about potential Russian interference and access to information.

    But I think it's very important to distinguish between Russian intelligence trying to hack into e-mails and a consumer application that's based in Russia. So I do think some of that is a little bit overblown.

    What I think is actually really of concern here is not that this — not that your photo, when you give it to FaceApp, is going to somehow end up on a billboard in Russia or anything like that, but that this information is instead going to be used to basically improve the facial detection, analysis and recognition algorithms of FaceApp.

    And we have already seen this with other types of photo analytics and management tools, where you have a simple app that lets you manage your photos. It seems pretty innocuous. And before you know it, all of that — all of those photos help power all of these algorithms that are great at face detection analysis.

    And so then those tools can be used to provide facial recognition services to employers, to law enforcement again, but also to schools. And we have also sort of seen facial analysis being used to detect health conditions.

    So, really, the genie is out of the bottle to do a whole lot of really interesting stuff with facial data. And so I don't necessarily think individual Democrats need to be worried that FaceApp is going to be used against a Democratic candidate, or frankly, a Democratic politician or staffer.

    But all of this does sort of go into powering facial analytics tools that are really powerful and very hard for average people to understand.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    There was some concern around that privacy agreement. As you mentioned, it's not unusual. Other apps have similar agreements like that.

  • Joseph Jerome:

    Yes.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    But a lot of people were concerned about, well, what else is the app gathering? Is it just the photo I upload? What about all my other photos? What about other info on my phone?

  • Joseph Jerome:

    Sure.

    So, again, it's a pretty generic privacy policy. It reserves the right to grab a whole bunch of technical information, device identifiers, things that companies often say are anonymous.

    Again, I actually don't think FaceApp is terribly pernicious. It's not the exception to the rule. If we're concerned about FaceApp, we ought to be concerned about all apps. And that's sort of part of the larger privacy conversation that privacy advocates like myself have been pushing for a long time.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, in 30 seconds, can you tell us, if you have advice for folks out there who are concerned about how their information is being used, what they're sharing, what is that?

  • Joseph Jerome:

    So we always are being told to read privacy policies.

    I don't think reading privacy policies is actually going to help. I think what individuals need to do is reach out to their lawmakers, state, local, federal lawmakers, and push for them to put forward privacy protections.

    When it comes to facial data or biometrics, the Government Accountability Office has said that there are no federal laws that protect this information.

    So, if we really want guardrails and protections for face data, let's pass a law. And Congress can do that any time it wants.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Joseph Jerome of the Center for Democracy and Technology, thanks for being here.

  • Joseph Jerome:

    Thank you.

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