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Privacy concerns after ZAO face-swap app goes viral in China

Written by Mon 2 Sep 2019

ZAO was downloaded millions of times over the weekend

China is reckoning with its own consumer privacy scandal after a Deepfake-style app that lets users swap faces with celebrities and sports stars went viral over the weekend.

After ZAO was released on the Chinese iOS app store on Friday it quickly went viral, clocking up millions of downloads and immediately drawing backlash over data privacy concerns, much like FaceApp, a similar app that went viral in July.

The app, which currently tops the iOS app store in China, uses Deepfake-style facial replacement technology to replace users’ faces with movie stars like Leonardo Dicaprio, generating short video clips based on iconic movie scenes or historic sporting moments.

Deepfakes — synthetic sound recordings, images or videos generated by neural networks trained by Generative Adversarial Networks — are growing in sophistication, prompting concerns they could be used to manipulate markets or commit fraud and extortion.

Although ZAO is a superficially harmless Deepfake application, its developer Momo Inc. has been asked to clarify the application’s privacy policy, which in one section states ZAO users surrender the intellectual property of their images and permit the app to use them for marketing purposes.

Bloomberg reports that ZAO has since updated its terms, stating that “headshots” and “mini-videos” will only be used to improve the app or anything else pre-approved by users. It has not stopped a flood of negative reviews reducing the app’s rating to 1.9 stars out of five.

ZAO published a statement on Weibo saying it would soon address privacy concerns.

“We thoroughly understand the anxiety people have toward privacy concerns,” the company said. “We have received the questions you have sent us. We will correct the areas we have not considered and require some time.”

The controversy is much like the one that embroiled face-ageing app FaceApp in July. In response to a privacy-based backlash, FaceApp’s developer was forced to clarify its privacy policy and allow users to delete photos off its servers. However some commentators said the application was no more invasive than many other apps on the app store. Unlike FaceApp, ZAO is not available in the West.

Written by Mon 2 Sep 2019

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China data privacy
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