When the Democratic candidate for president loses in 2020, why will they have lost? Maybe it’ll have been because the Democratic Establishment sees Donald Trump as some sort of political anomaly it can magically undo by nominating Joe Biden and floating seemingly progressive but actually moderate policies. Or will be attributable to powerful congressional Democrats’ refusal to entertain the idea of impeachment? Will it be because of an internal tug-of-war between the centrists and leftist of the Democratic Party? Will it be because a conservative-leaning Supreme Court agrees to delay the next election indefinitely?
It could be any of these. Or … will the Democrats lose because of an app?
Over the past week or so, the mobile app FaceApp has had a resurgence. FaceApp, if you recall, was the app that was able to take someone’s headshot and insert a creepy smile, or add a beard, or turn them old. The senior-citizen filter has led to a resurgence of the app, with users posting senile selfies all across the various social-media platforms.
Yesterday, the hand-wringing started, when smarter-than-everyone-else tech pundits began pointing out that FaceApp was made … in Russia!!! Oh no! The same Russia who used an army of 600 gazillion trolls and bots to manipulate the 2016 election!!! (In reality, the tangible effect of actions from the Internet Research Agency is very much in dispute. Actual hacking of DNC email accounts was far more damaging.) FaceApp, the theory goes, is secretly an operation to harvest as much data on American users’ faces as possible in order to … well, I’m less clear on that part. Similar worry spread the first time FaceApp gained traction.
There is no evidence that FaceApp, other than being made by people in Russia, has ties to the Russian government. FaceApp’s founder Yaroslav Goncharov told TechCrunch that “no user data is ‘transferred to Russia,’even though its R&D team is based there” and uses servers leased from Amazon Web Services and Google Cloud. (If the mere geographic location of a tech company and possible ties to that region’s authoritarian government worries you, wait until you hear about TikTok!)
I get why people want to believe the nefarious theory of FaceApp. It’s a lot easier to accept the idea that one was duped by a complicated data-collection scheme via an app that’s actually a front for a foreign government’s campaign of subterfuge than it is to accept that, well, your personal information is already all over the web and was given out, by you, willfully. Facebook has your info and a pic of your face, Google has it, TikTok has it, hundreds of advertising middlemen have it.
Yesterday, FaceApp hysteria reached its peak when, first, the Democratic National Committee — you know, the one that got hacked — told 2020 campaigns not to use FaceApp. “This app allows users to perform different transformations on photos of people, such as aging the person in the picture. Unfortunately, this novelty is not without risk: FaceApp was developed by Russians,” Bob Lord, the DNC’s chief security officer, wrote, according to CNN.
He added: “If you or any of your staff have already used the app, we recommend that they delete the app immediately.” Anyone with a decent understanding of cloud computing and remote servers will understand that deleting the app after using it does not erase the data FaceApp has already acquired, but okay.
Yesterday evening, Senator Chuck Schumer (who I guess has nothing better to do?) wrote a letter to the directors of the FBI and FTC asking them to look into FaceApp’s practices.
“These forms of ‘dark patterns,’ which manifest in opaque disclosures and broader user authorizations, can be misleading to consumers and may even constitute a deceptive trade practice,” Schumer wrote. He’s not wrong, but the sort of policy FaceApp users agree to is not uniquely loose or dastardly. These practices are, by and large, standard industry practice. That the terms are standard does not make them good; I only mean to point out that there are plenty of American companies — not gonna name names — that could also stand to have their privacy policies shored up.
All of this is to say that FaceApp, as much as it might comfort us to lay all of our digital hang-ups on this one thing, is not a national security threat. At least, not anymore than Facebook or Twitter or Instagram are.