FaceApp facial transformations

FaceApp is a mobile-based app that enables users to transform their facial photographs, enabling them to appear younger or older, add a smile, facial hair or glasses, change eye colour, hairstyle or gender, or become 'hot'.

Released in January 2017, the app quickly became popular, with over a million people downloading it in the two weeks after its launch. In March 2023, it had over 500 million downloads, according to its website. 

Operator: FaceApp Technology
Developer: Yaroslav Goncharov
Country: Russia; Cyprus
Sector: Media/entertainment/sports/arts
Purpose: Transform faces
Technology: Deep learning; Neural network; Machine learning
Issue: Privacy; Bias/discrimination - race, ethnicity, LGBTQ, transgender
Transparency: Governance; Marketing; Privacy

Risks and harms 🛑

Concerns have been raised about FaceApp's privacy and security practices, perceived bias towards racial and ethnic minorities, and to LGBTQ and transgender people, and the misuse of people's facial data for fraud and other pruposes., including selling to emerging illicit markets that use selfies to gain access to bank accounts12345.

Privacy, geo-politics

In 2019, it was reported that FaceApp was storing users' photos on its servers in Russia rather than on their phones, and that their metadata was being collected. In addition, concerns were raised that FaceApp's privacy policy allowed it to use people’s usernames, names, and likeness for commercial purposes.

The reports prompted US senator Chuck Schumer to urge the FBI and Federal Trade Commission to investigate FaceApp, saying it could pose 'national security and privacy risks for millions of US citizens'. In response, the FBI said 'it considers any mobile application or similar product developed in Russia, such as FaceApp, to be a potential counterintelligence threat'.

FaceApp CEO Yaroslav Goncharov responded by saying that only the picture chosen by the user is uploaded and stored on cloud computing services provided by Amazon and Google, and that the app did not harvest a user’s mobile photo library.

Bias, stereotyping

Soon after its launch, FaceApp received considerable criticism for its 'hot' filter, which was supposed to make users more physically attractive, but which whitened skin tones, resulting in accusations that the app was 'racist'. 

Goncharov apologised for the feature, saying it was due to a flaw in the underlying neural network, which was skewed towards European/Caucasian faces. 

A few months later, FaceApp introduced a series of 'ethnicity filters', allowing users to become 'black,' 'Asian', 'Caucasian,' or 'Indian.' It quickly withdrew the feature after accusations of racism and stereotyping. 

Legal, regulatory 👩🏼‍⚖️

Page info
Type: System
Published: March 2023
Last updated: May 2024