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A Viral Chinese Deepfake App Is Sparking a Debate on Privacy

Chinese users jumped at the chance to edit themselves into scenes from shows like ‘Game of Thrones’ but those who have studied the app’s privacy policy say it’s not all fun and games.

by Meera Navlakha
03 September 2019, 4:11am

Screenshot via Twitter.

Deepfakes are a scary concept. Those are edited videos and images that can look and sound so real that many are easily fooled they're legit. And some say they could be dangerous.

Recent disturbing incidents involving the trend include a fake video of Mark Zuckerberg that has the Facebook founder giving an ominous speech about his company’s power. There is also an app that can undress a photo of any woman with just a click of a button. Now, criticism is directed at a new Chinese app called Zao, which has been slammed for its sketchy privacy policies.

Zao went viral almost immediately after launching on Aug. 30. Bloomberg reported that by Sept. 2, it had skyrocketed to the top of app store charts. It was released by the Changsha Shenduronghe Network Technology, a subsidiary of the Chinese company Momo Inc, and allows users to easily swap their faces with anyone in select videos. No prior editing skills required.

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Zao on the Chinese iTunes App Store.

By simply taking a series of selfies—moving their mouths and changing facial expressions—people have morphed their faces with actors in shows and movies like Game of Thrones, The Big Bang Theory, Romeo and Juliet, and a slew of Chinese films.

The app’s deepfake software is, as seen above, alarmingly accurate. While some are amused by it, others are wary.

Zao’s rapid rise eventually led to a serious fall. Reviews quickly turned negative when users took a closer look into its privacy policy. It states that users give the app’s owners “free, irrevocable, permanent, transferable, and relicensable” rights to all user-generated content.

This means the company can easily access and use anything uploaded onto the app. The backlash has gotten so bad that Zao now has a rating of 1.9 out of five stars on the AppStore. “Rubbish, hooligan software,” reads one out of the over 4,000 reviews.

China’s E-Commerce Research Center has even encouraged government authorities to investigate the app. In a statement, it said that the app “violates certain laws and standards set by the nation and the industry.

The Verge also pointed out that because the app is free, its owners are likely “profiting” from the data users enter.

Zao has updated its privacy terms since the criticisms blew up. Now, headshots and videos uploaded by users cannot be used for anything other than to improve the app. If users delete their content, it will be wiped out from the server.

“We understand the concern about privacy,” said the app’s statement on Chinese microblogging site 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.”

Zao is not the only app to be criticised for its privacy policies. In July, FaceApp, created by Russian developers, went viral for allowing users to create “old” versions of themselves by uploading photos. It was a huge hit but people became skeptical about its privacy policy and feared what the app's owners can do with their images.

Find Meera on Twitter and Instagram.