Tue. Dec 10th, 2019

The best lesson of the FaceApp controversy | Technology


On the night of July 15, the programmer Joshua Nozzi went to sleep angry at his home in Virginia (United States). Shortly before 11 o'clock at night, he had tweeted about an app that stole all the photos of your mobile without asking: "Be careful with FaceApp, the fashion app that ages your face, immediately upload your photos without asking, choose it or not, "he wrote. That's what, in a first impression after using it, it seemed to happen.

The best lesson of the FaceApp controversy



The next morning, his tweet had gone viral and was everywhere, especially on some popular digital websites. It is a new example that a message written in an oversight can end up unleashing unforeseen tornadoes.

Everything had started a few days before. Between July 12 and 13, global searches for "FaceApp" began on Google, according to Google Trends. The app, created in January 2017, took months without anyone paying close attention. It had been updated once or twice a month without anything special happening.

A search for "FaceApp" on Google on July 12 returns discrete content: the news of the last update on a secondary Android website, a Google Play page. Nothing special.

The app, created in January 2017, took months without anyone paying close attention

During the next two or three days, however, photo galleries began to appear on smaller pages: look at these old-time footballers, or these Hollywood stars. The search in Google every day allows you to see the beginning of a storm: a few droplets, a few drops, more and more, until it rains in the seas.

On July 15 the headlines were to draw attention: look how fun this app, you'll see how old you are. Although that day some headline already carried the verb "warn". There was also a dark side. One of the words that was going to mark FaceApp's coverage was coming out: Russia. It turns out that the developers were in St. Petersburg.

The mixture of the Russians with the theft of photographs trumpeted by Nozzi caused the perfect viral phenomenon. Wednesday the 17th was the day of the explosion. Thousands of articles, the Democratic Party asked their presidential campaigns not to use FaceApp and if they had used it, they would erase it. Senator Chuck Schumer asked in a letter to the FBI to investigate the application.

Could it be possible that an app suddenly became the focus of global danger on the internet? By power, it could be. That is the lesson of this phenomenon: the suspicion of users before companies that offer services on the Internet is not the same as a few years ago. Mobile owners still want to see themselves aged and do not go at the moment to give up the pleasure of doing it from their device. But there is also the feeling that everything that is so easy may have an uncomfortable price.

"Thousands of articles can be made in the press, one for each app if they propose it, but the challenge is to understand the panorama, the interconnections and dynamics between apps, the rest are anecdotes and isolated cases, people will stop using FaceApp and will go to use Gañanapp ", says Narseo Vallina, professor at Imdea Networks (Leganés) and member of the AppCensus project.

Every app that we install on the mobile is a possible new vulnerability. FaceApp was a false alarm, but it is not the first one.

Every app that we install on the mobile is a possible new vulnerability. FaceApp was a false alarm, but it is not the first one. It was like opening a window to a dirty panorama where the privacy of the users is the last priority.

The developer Nozzi asked for forgiveness on your blog two days later for his exaggerated reaction to see something happen on his mobile without knowing what: "I was wrong about what I thought the app was, and I was wrong to hang the accusation without having checked before," he explains. He ended up deleting the tweets.

Others have done checks since then. For example, Joel Reardon, associate professor at the University of Calgary (Canada): "I have watched his traffic and he behaves better than many other apps in relation to the number of trackers and access to sensitive resources," he says. "Their language in privacy policies is exaggerated, but it is also quite standard for the industry, unfortunately," he adds.

A sensationalist headline New York Post It summarized the almost parody on FaceApp: "The Russians now have all your old photos", said All this commotion – and those that will come – indicates that the concern and awareness of the users is increasing. Not only the privacy of each, but the complicated army of companies and government interests that are nourished by the data they accumulate and, above all, combine.

A good comparison is that in August of 2017 there was already a controversy over FaceApp. But it was not for privacy, but because it allowed you to become black and other races. The company removed those racial filters and continued to allow people to look old or young. Now, yes, it works much better.

The new controversy goes more to the heart of the privacy system. In its official response FaceApp defended itself by saying that functions can be used without the user having to identify themselves: "So we do not have access to any data that can identify a person". It is an example of how the language of this ecosystem deceives more than help. In your privacy policy, FaceApp says instead that when the app is used, "we can access, collect, monitor, store on your device or remotely one or more 'device identifiers'". Are they not capable after associating that "identified device" with its owner? It does not seem difficult.

At least now users are more aware that their decisions with a mobile phone are the biggest security risk they face. It's a good lesson from FaceApp.

Successful foreign apps are Chinese

The panic over the Russian origin of FaceApp can not make us forget that China is the origin of the biggest hits of apps from non-Western countries. TikTok bought the old Musical.ly and with a huge investment is today the reference application for the very young and their short karaoke videos. Two other online trading apps, Wish and Shein, are also two giants with great results. Wish is, for example, the number 1 online sales app in the US – above Amazon, thanks to its prices – on both Android and iPhone. China also does not allow the American giants to operate in its country.

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