The FBI Says the Photo-Editing App That Went Viral This Summer Is a ‘Significant Counterintelligence Threat’ Because of Its Ties to Russia

 In GDI, Russia, Defense, Cyber/ICT
  • FaceApp, the viral pho­to-edit­ing app that can make you look old or swap your gen­der using arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence, has come under close scruti­ny because of its data secu­ri­ty and Russian ori­gins
  • Back in July, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer wrote a let­ter to the FBI and Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to express his con­cerns over the nation­al secu­ri­ty risk posed by the pop­u­lar FaceApp app that has pro­lif­er­at­ed across social media chan­nels.
  • The FBI respond­ed to Schumer in a let­ter dat­ed November 25th, inform­ing him that FaceApp, along with any oth­er mobile app devel­oped in Russia, was a poten­tial coun­ter­in­tel­li­gence threat. Schumer tweet­ed a copy of that let­ter Monday. 
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The FBI says that it con­sid­ers “any mobile appli­ca­tion or sim­i­lar prod­uct devel­oped in Russia, such as FaceApp, to be a sig­nif­i­cant coun­ter­in­tel­li­gence threat.” 

The pop­u­lar pho­to-edit­ing plat­form FaceApp debuted in 2017, but it explod­ed in pop­u­lar­i­ty this sum­mer as social media influ­encers flood­ed feeds with self­ies that used the app’s fil­ters to alter their age or gen­der— usu­al­ly to hilar­i­ous effect. It was even briefly the most pop­u­lar free app in both the Apple Store and Google Play. 

But the Russian-devel­oped app also drew reg­u­la­to­ry scruti­ny thanks to its data poli­cies: pho­tos added to FaceApp were uploaded to a serv­er for pro­cess­ing before being sent back to the user, but its terms of ser­vice did not spec­i­fy how long the data could be kept.

National secu­ri­ty con­cerns mount­ed, as peo­ple wor­ried that sen­si­tive bio­met­ric data could be accessed by a for­eign gov­ern­ment. When it went viral in July, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer imme­di­ate­ly wrote to the FBI and the FTC to express his con­cern about FaceApp’s Russia ties.  The Democratic National Committee also issued warn­ings to the 2020 Democratic can­di­dates about the app and urged them not to use it.

The Russian gov­ern­men­t’s role in the 2016 elec­tion, its pat­tern of hack­ing US intel­li­gence, and its long­time his­to­ry com­pet­ing with the US in the 20th cen­tu­ry formed the foun­da­tions of the FaceApp back­lash. 

The FBI respond­ed to Senator Schumer’s let­ter on November 25th, to say that it con­sid­ers “any mobile appli­ca­tion or sim­i­lar prod­uct devel­oped in Russia, such as FaceApp, to be a sig­nif­i­cant coun­ter­in­tel­li­gence threat.” 

The sen­a­tor shared a copy of the FBI’s response via Twitter on Monday, and said this was “a warn­ing to share with your fam­i­ly & friends.”

Russia’s new­ly imple­ment­ed inter­net sov­er­eign­ty law requires inter­net providers to install hard­ware to allow gov­ern­ment author­i­ties to locate and block sources of web traf­fic. This, along with its pri­va­cy and terms of use poli­cies, seems to form the basis for the FBI’s con­cerns. 

“The legal mech­a­nisms avail­able to the Government of Russia that per­mit access to data,” made FaceApp, along with any oth­er mobile appli­ca­tion devel­oped in Russia a coun­ter­in­tel­li­gence threat, accord­ing to the agen­cy’s let­ter.

The let­ter also warned about Russian intel­li­gence’s “robust cyber exploita­tion capa­bil­i­ties, and warned that author­i­ties could “remote­ly access all com­mu­ni­ca­tions and servers on Russian net­works,” with­out requests to inter­net providers. 

FaceApp did not imme­di­ate­ly respond to a request for com­ment. In a July state­ment to TechCrunch, it said it did not trans­fer any data to Russia, where its R&D team is based. 

Source: Business Insider (Military & Defense)

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