Breakingviews - Aging app kerfuffle shows fun trumps privacy

People walk past a poster simulating facial recognition software at the Security China 2018 exhibition on public safety and security in Beijing, China October 24, 2018. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

NEW YORK (Reuters Breakingviews) - A new app kerfuffle shows that fun still trumps privacy concerns. Consumers love FaceApp’s filter for making selfies look older or sexier, but its Russian ownership has suddenly sparked worries about potential data misuse. Yet the app isn’t new, and people have been posting their images on social media for years. It’s past time for regulators to set some boundaries.

Facebook’s inappropriate sharing of user information and data breaches at the likes of Equifax and Yahoo have prompted hefty fines and settlements, and sparked calls for new regulation. It’s easy to see why adding images to the mix can amplify such concerns. Consumers willingly share their selfies for a few minutes of fun, but once in the cloud those images can potentially be used for everything from identity theft to so-called deepfakes, or realistic looking videos designed to spread disinformation. Senator Chuck Schumer called on the U.S. government to examine whether FaceApp’s Russian owner shares information with the Kremlin.

Perhaps nothing is amiss. The company told TechCrunch it uploaded only agreed images, deleted most within 48 hours, and didn’t transfer data to Russia or share it with third parties. The controversy will probably fizzle out quickly, just as it did when FaceApp was first introduced in 2017. Then users marveled over the ability to age faces and swap genders, the media focused on a “hotness” filter that lightened users’ skin, and experts voiced worries about privacy, only to all be forgotten.

It’s a pattern that has grown increasingly familiar ever since the late Apple boss Steve Jobs put cameras on smartphones and Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook turned people onto social media. The only thing that changes is the volume – app downloads grow, users surrender more privacy, and experts issue shriller warnings.

Companies and consumers can’t be counted on to break this cycle. The financial incentives are too strong for firms to forswear data collection. It’s unrealistic to expect the average person to give informed consent to every lengthy user agreement. Regulators need real sticks to ensure better behavior by companies, while rules like Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation can give consumers better control of their data. Such measures would offer the best assurance that a silly app is only that.


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