The FaceApp fracas forces us to think hard about giving our personal data to companies in authoritarian countries.
ASPEN, Colo. — Hey, America, Vladimir Putin wants to steal your face. Or maybe not!
We’ve had a national digital freakout this week over whether the popular FaceApp app is a Russian plot to steal the visages and other personal data of American citizens for nefarious purposes. Yet security experts — like the many gathered here at the Aspen Security Forum — have been grokking this subject for quite a while: You are what you post, and what you post could most certainly be vulnerable to all kinds of misuse across the globe.
This is especially true when we use apps run by companies located in countries that have, shall we say, a more complicated relationship with their host government — as in Russia.
That’s why, without a whole lot of proof, there’s been a hue and cry over an app that alters your photos to make you look, among other things, younger or older. It’s been around since 2017, and it went viral recently when celebrities like the Jonas Brothers and Gordon Ramsay started using it, posting on social media photographs seamlessly doctored to make them look like older men. (Mariah Carey, wasn’t having any of it, tweeting: “FaceApp is not something I acknowledge … You don’t exist to me.”)
It’s silly. It’s fun. And it’s scaring a lot of Americans.
The Democratic National Committee sent out an alert imploring those who work on presidential campaigns to delete the app from their phones, largely because FaceApp’s creator, Wireless Lab, is based in St. Petersburg, Russia.
Security concerns about Russian companies are not unfounded, of course, given the very damaging hacking from Russia that Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party underwent during the 2016 campaign. But the Democratic Senate minority leader, Chuck Schumer, took things a bit far this week and asked the F.B.I. and the Federal Trade Commission to investigate FaceApp, suggesting the obvious digital boogeyman theory that the company could pose “national security and privacy risks for millions of U.S. citizens.”
The senator added in a letter: “Given the growing popularity of FaceApp and these national security and privacy concerns, I ask that the F.B.I. assess whether the personal data uploaded by millions of Americans onto FaceApp may be finding its way into the hands of the Russian government or entities with ties to the Russian government.”
Putin strikes again! Or maybe not so much.
Let’s face it: American tech giants have more information on everyone who uses the internet than any other organizations on the planet.
Still, even if the FaceApp brouhaha was overblown, the increasing popularity of consumer apps from countries with authoritarian governments is something to keep an eye on. A good example is the China-based video giant TikTok, which the kids love and which has already paid fines to the F.T.C. over privacy violations related to illegally collecting information from said children.
As we have been moving to a new digital world order, the FaceApp fracas is part of a larger discussion that we must have about the increasing vulnerabilities from global companies armed with ever more powerful computing capabilities that have access to our data.
That includes thinking hard about what kind of leverage collecting all that data could give to governments that have fewer concerns about protecting the privacy of their citizens and whether there should be more safeguards as global debate over cybersafety escalates.
Such ideas are certainly an emerging theme here at the security forum, which is largely still about geopolitical military challenges, with panels with old-school foreign-policy titles like “Great Powers Clash in the Arctic: The Struggle for the Northern Frontier.”
But pretty much every discussion I heard could not avoid the topic of the increasing cyberwar clashes that are also taking place; an increasingly common term to describe the state of affairs — the “new Cold War” — has been tossed around a lot.
One late-night panelist suggested that there might be more than one internet in the future — and the possible need for a digital Berlin Wall to separate, say, the more authoritarian one from the chaotic and free internet that has been morphing over the last 25 years.
Another interesting idea is the possible emergence of “sovereign clouds,” storage limited to a specific group of users, that would create strong borders of digital participation, not just among and between countries but also among and between companies.
I am still trying to wrap my head around the idea of more tech fences, because they feel like a backtracking of the core idea of open global networks, which have transformed the world and created huge wealth and societal transformation.
Of course, despite the focus on Russia’s FaceApp, the real game afoot, as most here at the forum agreed, is the race between the United States and China for global tech dominance. That’s been most clear in the efforts by American officials to throttle back the Chinese tech-giant Huawei from being the one to build next-generation 5G cellphone networks across the world.
That theme was one of the overall points made by Adm. Philip Davidson, head of the United States Indo-Pacific Command, in a talk titled “Military Competition with China: Maintaining America’s Edge.” The admiral noted that keeping up is a matter of national security, as China could surpass American capabilities in the region by 2050, especially technologically.
This is not exactly a new revelation, but it’s one that becomes amplified and escalated as digital weaponry of all kinds proliferates across the world, even among consumers.
So, even if the FaceApp controversy seems minor in the geopolitical landscape, what’s entirely clear is that what it represents is about much more than just a pretty face.