Did you get caught by the FaceApp Frenzy?

It was one of the social media stories of the Summer – the Face App fiasco! It happened in July when over a period of about a week anyone who was on social media saw photo after photo of people they knew digitally altered to look older or younger. The images were created using an app called FaceApp which uses a variety of filters to change what a person looks like.

Many of my online friends were using it and sharing images into my timeline of how they would look in 20 years. Around the world, more than 100 million people downloaded the app, including many celebrities.

FaceApp has been around for a couple of years but what happened in July with the app might be explained as a sudden viral surge in its use. It might also be called the ‘sheep’ effect!

So after millions of people downloaded and shared their face using FaceApp little murmurs of concern began to be expressed about privacy and the terms of service of this particular app. Included in the terms were the granting of “perpetual, irrevocable, nonexclusive, royalty-free, worldwide” ownership of images used in the app and the freedom to “use, reproduce, modify, adapt, publish and translate” them however they see fit.

There were also some concerns expressed about whether the app was mining data from a user’s mobile phone including the photo album, location, messages or other private information.
These worries intensified when users learned that FaceApp’s development team is based in Russia!

Privacy experts around the world have recommended deleting the FaceApp, though they also concede that there’s no way to get back what the app has already taken and maybe even sold on to developers.

This particular viral download and backlash to this app has highlighted for many the way our online privacy is regularly and routinely undermined online.

But, while FaceApp’s terms of service may sound troubling, they are in fact quite similar to agreements used by platforms like Facebook, Twitter or Instagram, experts say.

We should always read the small print and the terms of service when we are upgrading, downloading or browsing. How many of us have sat and read the Google terms of service or the Apple terms of service? The rush to click onwards seems to outweigh the responsibility we need to have for our own privacy in the online spaces.

The FaceApp download frenzy and the follow up backlash do have an upside to them. They have shown that the general public are becoming more and more aware of the importance of protecting their online privacy and digital information.
I watched and read what online commentators were saying about the FaceApp furore and two comments stood out: one made by Ryan Grenoble in HuffPost and the other from Charlie Warzel in the New York Times:

“FaceApp isn’t unique here. Many apps use similarly vague ― and frighteningly far-reaching ― boilerplate language in their terms and conditions. This should concern you about all apps, not just FaceApp” – Ryan Grenoble, HuffPost

“We care about our digital privacy but still don’t quite understand it. Which is what makes the last week potentially heartening in the long term. Privacy is complex and often dull and hard to get even concerned internet dwellers to pay attention to. This week, however, we’re paying attention.” – Charlie Warzel, New York Times

So where do we go from here? We have to be more discerning about the terms and conditions of the various apps we are downloading into our online world. This is especially true for those operating parish and diocesan social media. Most of us have valuable data and work information or precious photos on our phones. Do we really want to open this up to the faceless online world which does not have our best interests at heart?

If you think about those ‘harmless’ fun quizzes on Facebook and the types of questions asked in them, it should be obvious that they are not insignificant. Do you really need to be passing on your date of birth to an app that wants to tell you which character from Harry Potter you are? Might you just decide that you are Harry or Hermione without sharing this priceless data?


This article appears courtesy of the Editor of Intercom Magazine, in which I write the monthly Get Connected column. This article appears in the September 2019 issue of the magazine. 


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