is it safe to use faceapp?

A data professor tells us why our infatuation with FaceApp could spell future disaster.

by Douglas Greenwood
19 July 2019, 11:29am

It’s a Sunday night and I’m lying in bed staring at a photo of myself: I’m 80 years old and my face look like a scrotum. Take off the filter and there I am. Young again. Phew.

Putting a stop to the natural process of getting old is now something we’re told to start working towards in our twenties. Start a formal skincare routine early and you’ll have less regrets later, right? We’ve all watched our parents and grandparents stare into the bathroom mirror, the signs of ageing peppered across their faces: crows feet, pursing lips and dark spots. They were the generation who missed out on the hyaluronic acids and sheet masks and the retinoid boom, who soaked up the sun at Spanish holiday resorts without considering the consequences later down the line.

In that respect, millennials and Gen-Zers have been afforded the privilege of looking after ourselves, safe in the knowledge that -- hopefully -- we’ll learn from their mistakes. But it’s also taught us, probably without any solid evidence, that we can co-opt nature’s course with a few cute products. Now, seeing what we look like when we get old and wrinkly feels like more of a novelty than an inevitability.

Which might explain why we’re so into FaceApp’s ageing filter right now. In a new trend that kicked-off a few days ago, the “state of the art photo-editor” app that purports to be “powered by AI” got the internet in a chokehold and said, in a somewhat dystopian manner: ‘Meet your future self’. In quite harrowingly accurate detail, running your selfies through their system will sag your cheeks, thin your lips and give you some serious, fuck-off frown lines. The craze is so popular that FaceApp has skyrocketed to number one on Apple’s UK App Store. Every celeb from Lil Nas X to The Jonas Brothers are doing it. Your old school friend that you haven't seen in forever is doing it. Your dad’s probably doing it too. All the signs of a life you haven’t lived are right there in front of you. Quite funny, isn’t it?

Truth be told, it is. There’s something about seeing yourself twisted into a familiar and yet distant version of yourself that’s fascinating, like passing someone on the street who you recognise but know you’ve never met. But how did we come to be okay with it? Why are we now sharing selfies of us looking haggard when, just two or three years ago, a whole generation’s self-esteem was built on the poisonous act of glossing over your blemishes and slimming your features on Facetune before uploading that bomb selfie to IG?

Don’t we all want to look and seem fit all of the time, even when we’re not? Well, as a concept, Facetune has hit its peak and has slipped into the ether. Statistics show that downloads have been slowly dropping since April of this year, and proof of filters’ damaging effects on our self-esteem has been the subject of medical studies. So called ‘Snapchat Dysmorphia’ is a phrase used to describe the phenomenon that lead people to undergo plastic surgery in order to resemble their favourite Snapchat filters. Looking conventionally attractive and flaw-free on the ‘gram is, for many, not something worth striving for anymore. Beauty influencers have the monopoly there: the ones who use make-up like Monet.

Which leaves the rest of us in an interesting position: do we spend our lives online upholding an image of perfection we can’t carry over into the real world, or do we accept that we look butters sometimes and learn to live with it? I’d like to think we’re veering towards the latter now, and the decline of Facetune's reign while FaceApp's momentary popularity is a small but hopeful suggestion of this.

But, like with everything, there are layers to FaceApps popularity. Just because everybody’s using them doesn’t mean we shouldn’t exercise caution when it comes to navigating these so-called ‘AI’ apps’, no matter how entertaining they may be. If we were to trust the swirling rumours of the internet, the Russian techlords behind them are downloading all of our data and forcing us to hand over the rights to our own likeness -- as well as swathes of personal information. The terms and conditions that we willingly sign by downloading it state the following: You grant FaceApp a perpetual, irrevocable, nonexclusive, royalty-free, worldwide, fully-paid, transferable sub-licensable license to use, reproduce, modify, adapt, publish, translate, create derivative works from, distribute, publicly perform and display your User Content and any name, username or likeness provided in connection with your User Content in all media formats and channels now known or later developed, without compensation to you.”

“Just imagine if FaceApp goes out of business a year from now, and an opportunistic, enterprising company buys them up and buys that data.”

Those grandiose statements are enough to scare the shit out of anyone who finds them buried in the app’s Ts and Cs. There’s a theory that they could be creating a database of everybody’s selfies for facial recognition purposes. In an interview with the BBC, the app’s chief executive Yaroslav Goncharov stressed that this was not the case. But as Dr Seeta Peña Gangadharan, Assistant Professor of Media and Communications at the London School of Economics points out, just because a company is technically operating inside of the law, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t fear what they’re doing with our data. ”FaceApp isn't the only company we should be worried about when it comes to users (so-called) consenting to share our data with an app or the third parties they liaise with,” she tells i-D. “It just happens to be the latest worst example, [showing] us how easy it is for us to underestimate the value of our data and the importance of protecting it.”

So are we really at risk? “We’re definitely imperilling our ability to make informed choices about the uses of our data now and in the foreseeable future,” Dr Gangadharan points out. “Just imagine if FaceApp goes out of business a year from now, and an opportunistic, enterprising company buys them up and buys that data.” She compares it to an environmental disaster; an oil spill. “We don’t know how many of us are going to affected further down the line. This kind of app seems like the perfect example of how users are experimental testbeds for software development, In this case, it’s foreseeable that this kind of process, of modelling the ageing process, is helpful for perfecting facial recognition technology. We do that for FaceApp. We’re being experimented on.”

In the technological age, it’s hard not to think that we’re perfect guinea pigs, with these fun experiments being co-opted by their creators as a means of social and psychological research. There’s the equally unsettling issue that we’re so deep in social media’s desire to provide evidence of how ‘liked’ we are that we’ve simply discovered another way of drawing attention to ourselves. If the ‘beautiful’ bubble is about to pop, maybe this is our new route to commanding attention? Maybe this is, like many other things, a mere symptom of how deranged the internet is making us.

If there’s one thing Instagram’s impending removal of the ‘like’ function could teach us (it’s already being trialledin countries like New Zealand, Italy and Ireland), it’s that we sacrifice too much of ourselves to the internet, in favour of praise, attention and adoration, without considering the consequences. So yes, while making your face look haggard as hell might seem like a fun sentiment, it’s always good to be aware of what’s going on behind the scenes. A simple tap and your face is back to normal, but be aware: we’re compromising our privacy in the name of said ‘fun’.

This article originally appeared on i-D UK.

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