Tech

Giving Your Selfie To This Chinese App Is A Really Bad Idea

Even if your face looks cool on Jon Snow's body
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If you can think all the way back to the bygone days of July 2019, you’ll remember that we as a country were briefly enraptured by FaceApp, an app that used neural networks to simulate what you’d look like as an old person, just as long as you uploaded your selfie and forked over your face to shadowy Russians who then had permission to use it for possibly evil purposes in perpetuity.

It was pretty fun for a few days, but as soon as we got hip to FaceApp’s hilariously vague and expansive Terms of Service, which granted the St. Petersburg-based company behind the app “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,” we promptly wised up about our privacy, stopped posting our selfies, and instead settled for merely imagining what we’ll look like when we’re octogenarians by looking at pictures of our grandparents.

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But it sure is tempting to see what our faces might look like with some cool tech tweaks, data concerns be damned, which is how we find ourselves back in the exact same place a few months later. Over the weekend, another face-swapping app called ZAO launched in China and immediately became the most popular app in the country. It hasn’t landed stateside yet, but it’s only a matter of time.

ZAO’s appeal is admittedly irresistible: Upload your selfie to the app and within seconds, your face will be inserted into scenes from movies like Titanic and shows like Game of Thrones. The results, as shown in some of the tweets below, are impressively realistic.




ZAO trades in the kind of AI technology that makes deepfakes—like this viral Bill Hader/Tom Cruise mashup from last month—simultaneously amazing and terrifying. For a refresher, deepfakes are based on generative adversarial networks (GANS), which enable algorithms to move beyond classifying data into generating or creating images. This occurs when two GANs try to fool each other into thinking an image is “real”; using just one image of somebody, a good GAN can create a seamless video clip of that person.

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As deepfake tech continues to grow more widespread and easy to employ, the potential applications will only grow more wicked—like, say, using weaponised deepfakes of politicians to sway voters in a crucial election. But from the casual user’s perspective, an app like ZAO poses the same privacy problems that have ensnared us before.

ZAO’s user agreement upon launch stated that the app had “free, irrevocable, permanent, transferable, and relicense-able” rights to anything its users upload, per Bloomberg. But after people caught wind of the agreement, they torpedoed ZAO’s page in China’s iOS Store with one-star reviews. While the negative swarm didn’t necessarily hurt business—the app still holds the top spot in the iOS Store—ZAO updated its terms accordingly. The app will no longer use headshots except to “improve the app or things pre-agreed by users,” according to Bloomberg. And if you delete your photo, ZAO will scrub it from its servers, too.

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“We understand the concern about privacy,” ZAO said in a statement posted to the social-media platform Weibo. “We’ve received the feedback, and will fix the issues that we didn’t take into consideration, which will need a bit of time.”

Is it a start? Sure. But when ZAO or a knockoff app like it inevitably makes its way to America, its terms could still include purposely ambiguous language that possibly infringes on your privacy rights. So the takeaway here is to always be extra vigilant about reading all Terms of Service to see if the app you’re about to play with is really worth the hassle. The last thing you want is for your likeness to end up in some sketchy Chinese ad just because you wanted to see your head on Jon Snow’s body.

This story originally appeared on Esquire.co.ukMinor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.

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