(TMU Op-Ed) — This week, the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) issued a warning about the popular smartphone photo application FaceApp, along with every other app developed in Russia, calling them a “potential counterintelligence threat.”
The investigation was prompted by warnings from Democratic U.S. Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer this July that the app was suspect because it was made in Russia.
Schumer posted the FBI’s letter to his Twitter profile with a statement that basically implied I told ya so.
A warning to share with your family & friends:
This year when millions were downloading #FaceApp, I asked the FBI if the app was safe.
Well, the FBI just responded.
And they told me any app or product developed in Russia like FaceApp is a potential counterintelligence threat. pic.twitter.com/ioMzpp2Xi5
— Chuck Schumer (@SenSchumer) December 2, 2019
However, it doesn’t seem that there was actually much of an actual investigation into the technical aspects of the application, considering that the statement suggested that “any app or product developed in Russia like FaceApp is a potential counterintelligence threat.”
“The FBI considers any mobile application or similar product developed in Russia, such as FaceApp, to be a potential counterintelligence threat, based on the data the product collects … And the legal mechanisms available to the Government of Russia that permits access to data within Russia’s borders,” the letter read.
The word “potential” implies that they don’t really have any evidence.
Ian Thornton-Trump, intelligence service expert and CompTIA faculty member, told Forbes that this statement is “out of touch” and assumes that FaceApp is a threat simply due to its country of origin.
“I feel like this is a political opportunity to stoke the narrative of ‘tech company in Russia is bad; tech company in USA is good.’ It looks and smells like political pandering to an election base. The data collection practices of firms such as Google and Facebook make this look even more out of touch with the reality on the ground,” Thornton-Trump said.
FaceApp insists that they don’t “sell or share any user data with third parties,” but there is a very good chance that they do. Still, this is no different than the practices that most tech companies engage in.
As with most user agreements for most of the software available in app stores, privacy agreements permits the app to collect a user’s browser history, location, cookies, log files, metadata, and much more.
This much is fairly common, but most FaceApp users don’t know that the company can also use user uploaded photos for advertising, without compensating the people in the photos. This goes for third party advertisers too—if FaceApp wants to give your photo to another company for use in an advertisement, they can. FaceApp may insist that they won’t do this, but again, doing so is nothing unusual.
Obviously, FaceApp isn’t the only application on your phone that harvests your information. Most apps do. It is important to be careful with anything that you download.
The only reason there is so much controversy surrounding the FaceApp is because they have a headquarters based in Russia. If FaceApp were located in London or San Francisco with the exact same policies, it is unlikely that anyone would actually care that their data was being collected.
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