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Screenshot of FaceApp on the Google Play store

A viral photo-filter app that lets people see older versions of themselves is highlighting concerns about handing personal information to overseas-developed apps, as well as any app that has vague privacy policies.

What's new: FaceApp, which has gone viral before, has re-emerged as the most popular iPhone app as people flock to post their digitally aged selves on social media. The app, owned by Russia's Wireless Lab, has risen to the top of Apple's App Store and #FaceAppChallenge has exploded on social media.

Why it matters: To date, most of the data regulation debate has focused on apps built by U.S. companies that use data to drive advertising dollars.

  • The recent surge of foreign app downloads is sparking a new conversation about the national and economic security implications when companies in other countries (and potentially their governments) might be able to access U.S. personal data through free, viral apps.

The bigger picture: FaceApp's renewed popularity has some worried that the Russian company behind it may be accessing millions of users' data with relatively little oversight.

  • The Democratic National Committee has warned staffers on 2020 candidates' campaigns not to use FaceApp.
  • Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer on Wednesday eveningcalled for the FBI and the Federal Trade Commission to investigate FaceApp's national security and privacy risks. He emphasized that the app is "owned by a Russia-based company."

Yes, but: Others are skeptical that there is much to be worried about.

  • Tests have shown the company is uploading only the images being aged, not entire photo libraries.
  • And the company told TechCrunch that while it does briefly store photos, it deletes them within 48 hours and also uses U.S.-based cloud services to handle the data. Read FaceApp's privacy policy here.
  • Colorado Gov. Jared Polis certainly didn't seem concerned, posting his own aged photo on Twitter, with the caption: "Well, I guess this is what 6 months being Governor does to you."

Between the lines: Other foreign-made apps have been surging in the U.S., thanks mostly to investments in advertising on Big Tech platforms, like Facebook or Google.

  • Shein, a major Chinese retailer, has experienced 2.5 million new installs in the U.S. in the past quarter alone, per Apptopia — its most ever from the country.
  • TikTok, the Bytedance-owned social karaoke app, is exploding in the U.S. and spent $1 billion on advertising in the U.S. in 2018.
  • Wish, the Chinese retailer that rivals Shein, is still the No. 1 shopping app in the U.S. for both the Apple App Store and Google Play store.

Be smart: While privacy is a major issue, U.S. experts are also concerned about the economic and national security consequences of foreign-made apps.

  • "Say there’s a sensitive U.S. military officer with a kid who's making memes on TikTok. Is it possible that there’s data being collected through that usage that could be useful to a Chinese intelligence service? Yeah, that’s possible. But we haven’t seen evidence of that yet," Graham Webster of New America told Axios' Erica Pandey.
  • From a competition perspective, there's the issue of Chinese apps being able to access marketing vehicles like Google and Facebook with paid advertising to drive app downloads in the U.S., while no such opportunity exists for U.S.-based apps in China.

Our thought bubble: "Foreign-made" is relative, of course, and for much of the world beyond U.S. borders, relying on apps from Google, Facebook or American startups raises similar concerns.

Go deeper

The future of retail: more self-service

Zliide makes a tag that attaches to clothing for self-checkout in retail stores. Photo: Jennifer A. Kingson/Axios.

Self-checkout, self-service, autonomous stores, DIY: The retail world is prepping for a future with fewer human workers and more technology involved in selling us stuff.

Why it matters: While 72% of retail sales are still expected to take place in brick-and-mortar stores in 2024, merchants are busy installing interactive signage, smart price tags, and remote checkout systems that point to a very different customer experience.

  • Trends like "buy online, pick up in store" (BOPIS) and "buy online, return in store" (BORIS) are being joined by ROPIS (reserve online, pick up in store).
  • Cashier-less checkout is going mainstream — both because stores like Amazon Go have the technology to do it and because finding workers is so difficult.

How it works: Companies like Zliide are coming up with tech that keeps people coming to stores, but lets them buy stuff without taking it to a register.

  • Zliide's digital fob (above) attaches to a garment on a rack in a store, where you can try the item on.
  • Through Zliide's app, you can see the price, videos and product information.
  • You can check out on the spot through Apple Pay — no salesperson needed — and get a digital receipt. The Zliide fob unlocks, and you drop it in a nearby box.
  • If you decide against buying the shirt but change your mind later, Zliide will help you buy it online and have it delivered.

Driving the news: Judging from a stroll through the National Retail Federation's big annual trade show in New York City last week, the role of salespeople in retail stores will evolve and wane — possibly to the frustration of shoppers, who may want more in-person help.

  • As smart tags on merchandise make cashiers obsolete, retailers will be tempted to staff stores more thinly.
  • QR codes on in-store signage will direct people to promotions and other information that'll also help them shop without assistance.
  • On the plus side, people who find sales staff intrusive or bothersome will be able to dodge them.

What they're saying: "If you want to go keep your Airpods in, you can go check out and leave without interacting with a human," says Nikolai Brix Lindholm, CTO and co-founder of Zliide.

  • "With people who want to get serviced, employees have more time to do that because they don't have to stand behind the till — so they can actually go out on the floor and give service to the people who want it."

Zliide's system is now being used in Denmark by H&M Group's Weekday stores. "What we can actually learn now is who is coming into the store, what are they interacting with, what is the age split, what is the gender split of the store," Lindholm tells Axios.

  • "We really try to utilize it in terms of getting people to buy more."

What's next: A big buzzphrase at the retail conference was "social commerce," or letting people buy clothing, home furnishings and other products through Instagram, Facebook, TikTok or Pinterest.

  • "It's word-of-mouth on steroids," said Sandie Hawkins, TikTok’s GM of North America Solutions, per an Accenture report.
  • By one estimate, the global market for social commerce is expected to grow to $604.5 billion by 2027.

Advocates say Biden has let Haitian migrants down

Photo illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios. Photos: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images, Christian Torres/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Continued turmoil in Haiti is causing a growing number of Haitians to try to make it to American shores — and some advocates say the Biden administration isn't supporting this community in its time of crisis.

The big picture: Haitian-American activists in South Florida told Axios Today they feel like President Biden has gone back on campaign promises he made to the community to stand up for them.

House unveils sprawling tech bill

Biden speaks during a CEO conference on semiconductor and supply chain resilience (Amr Alfiky/Getty Images)

The House has introduced its own version of a sprawling $250 billion tech bill that the Biden administration is counting on to address supply chain and chip shortage problems and strengthen U.S. technology and research.

Why it matters: Having made little headway other key initiatives like the Build Back Better plan, Democrats are looking to iron out differences over this technology spending measure and rake up a legislative win, but they have a long way to go.