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Face-aging app rejuvenates old privacy questions

A picture of the faceapp app.
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.