Be Wary of Photography Phone Apps: They May Be Stealing Your Face

Be Wary of Photography Phone Apps: They May Be Stealing Your Face

We cannot live without our phones. Furthermore, phone apps that access your photos can be a lot of fun. However, they have a dark side, and maybe we should start to be more cautious about using them.

A few weeks ago, I interviewed an incredible macro photographer, Geraint Radford. He is a genuinely funny person who recently posted some AI-generated images of himself on his Instagram. They were hilarious, and the pictures made him look like a character from a spoof horror movie from the 1960s. 

Although this type of play is amusing, there is a deep concern about using AI to create Deep Fake videos, replacing one person’s face with another. Early on, technology was used to replace the faces of women appearing in pornography with those of famous people. More recently, there have been benign examples where the faces of different actors have replaced others in prominent roles. Take, for example, the following video where Jim Carrey’s face replaces Jack Nicholson’s in the shining. It’s not perfect, but relatively convincing nonetheless.

There are also dozens of film clips on YouTube where the actor Nicolas Cage’s face has replaced the original actor.

Peter Cushing appeared posthumously as Grand Moff Tarkin in the film Rogue One: A Star Wars Story — Cushing died 22 years earlier. A young version of the late Carrie Fisher also appeared as Princess Leia in the same movie.

Recently, Bruce Willis’ face was super-imposed over that of a Russian actor by the Russian AI firm, Deepcake.

These last three appearances were authorized and carried out with full disclosure. But they demonstrate that AI is becoming more convincing and could be used to deceive. Consequently, AI will inevitably be exploited by criminals and used to pervert our way of life and freedoms. Maybe the desire to use the software for evil intent outweighs its use for fun.

About five years ago, videos started to appear that showed political figures making speeches they had never made. At the time, a not-very-close inspection would make you smell a rat. Furthermore, the creators, for the most part, didn’t pretend they were real. However, half a decade later, technology has come a long way. Faked images have always been used to fool people, and this AI-based technology is pushing that deception to a new level.

Living in a world where political leaders tell blatant lies and falsely accuse others of misdoings, one can only assume that those same extremists will start to use AI not only to create fake videos showing their opponents in a negative light but also to dismiss evidence against themselves as fake. There are people out there, and some are those in power, who will abuse that power and technology.

I’ve traveled widely. Most people want to get on with their lives and live happily. Sadly, we live in an unstable world. Despite history repeatedly showing us that cooperation and compassion work better than competition and hate, our societies and the international community seem more divided now than they have been for years. It’s proven that aggressive nations interfere in the democratic process in other countries. They will inevitably use AI photos and video in that process.

Everyone I've met just wants to enjoy life.

People behave on the internet in ways they would not in real life. As I mentioned a short while ago in another article, a troll recently targeted me. After highlighting their behavior in the article, the trolling became threatening. I was not worried about the sick mind of some idiot on the far side of the world from me. Nevertheless, if they were doing this to me, they would likely try to harm someone more vulnerable. The police, both here in the UK and South Australia, are now aware of them.

But the chances are that they are otherwise a normally behaved adult. Why do I say that? It’s recognized that ordinary people fail to exhibit the same compassion on the internet as they would with people in real life that they know.

But what if that appalling behavior is carried out not by some nobody in Adelaide but by someone who wants power over you? Those who handle your photos and data have no attachment to you and may be inclined to exploit them for their nefarious purposes. Consequently, it is becoming a real danger that others may use our photos and videos in ways we might not wish.

Doubt has been cast upon some smartphone photography apps and how photographs and other personal data may be misused by the app’s owners linked to autocratic regimes. If you provide enough images of yourself to an AI, your face could be transplanted onto incriminating photos that might embarrass you or someone you are close to. Imagine your face appearing in a photograph showing a drug deal, pornography, a political protest, a riot, and so on.

One example is the controversy surrounding FaceApp. This smartphone app takes your face and changes it, so you look older or younger, or it could give you a beard, and so on. At first, it seemed like an innocuous bit of fun and was widely hailed as nothing more than that. Then, things started to change. At first, this was mainly due to the terms and conditions that seemed to give the app’s owners complete control over the images anyone uploaded:

You grant FaceApp a perpetual, irrevocable, nonexclusive, royalty-free, worldwide, fully-paid, transferable sub-licensable license to use, reproduce, modify, adapt, publish, translate, create derivative works from, distribute, publicly perform and display your User Content and any name, username or likeness provided in connection with your User Content in all media formats and channels now known or later developed, without compensation to you. When you post or otherwise share User Content on or through our Services, you understand that your User Content and any associated information (such as your [username], location or profile photo) will be visible to the public.

— FaceApp terms of use, via Forbes, 2019

Those terms have changed slightly now:

You grant FaceApp a nonexclusive, royalty-free, worldwide, fully paid license to use, reproduce, modify, adapt, create derivative works from, distribute, perform and display your User Content during the term of this Agreement solely to provide you with the Services.

— FaceApp Terms December 2022

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) warned in December 2020 that FaceApp and other apps developed in Russia are a “potential counterintelligence threat.” Similarly, tech coming out of China has been demonized, too.

The counterargument is that the doubts being cast upon, especially Russian and Chinese firms, are nothing more than a move to take revenue away from those states and direct it toward Western nations. This happened and became evident when European laws changed to start making the big tech companies pay taxes on the revenues they earned there. The then-Trump administration began an investigation in what seemed to be an attempt to prevent it. Critics said he wanted all those billions of dollars to continue flowing from the EU nations to the USA. Those against the ban on Huawei 5G technology being used say that Western countries are just using the threat to national security as a means of protectionism.

The truth probably lies somewhere between. Governments will use whatever means are available to bolster their own regimes and damage others.

Do you own a Huawei phone? Do you trust its security?

The threat is not just on the international security stage, but closer to home. Imagine you appear in a court case, and the opposition wants to undermine the legitimacy of your evidence. Perhaps you have a manager who wants to find a way to make your life a misery. We are used to hearing news about data breaches. What if a criminal with your data then uses AI to create a passport photo of you to accompany that data? Or perhaps you run a business, and your competition wants to damage your reputation. They say that the camera never lies, but AI does.

Is there anything we can do to protect ourselves if we consider that technology a threat? Other than becoming Luddites and rejecting everything that helps us to live in the modern world, probably not. The moment we interact with the internet, when we update our Facebook profile, post a selfie on Instagram, search for a camera we want, and buy it from Amazon, or if we visit a news website, play a game on our phone, connect to GPS, or move to a different cell area, we are giving data away about ourselves. We have no control over who uses it.

However, we can decide what phones we buy, what apps we use, and those we reject.

Does that sound paranoid, or are you just pressing on with life and not worrying about it? Have you stopped buying Chinese phones despite their fabulous cameras? Are you now uninstalling photography apps that were developed in Russia? Do you rarely post your image on the internet? Or do you consider it all paranoia or far-fetched? It will be interesting to hear your opinions in the comments.

Ivor Rackham's picture

A professional photographer, website developer, and writer, Ivor lives in the North East of England. His main work is training others in photography. He has a special interest in supporting people with their mental well-being. In 2023 he accepted becoming a brand ambassador for the OM System.

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Ivor, you make great points that I seldom hear people make. I am happy that I am not alone in forking over all of my data to other people for dubious usage.

This is not paranoia. It is reality.

Most of our electronic gadgets can and re being used against us in ways we cannot imagine. And most of it's use is contained in the EULA, sometimes in plain language, and sometimes and very smart "legaleze".

Most people I know are willing to ignore all of the privacy issues in exchange for a device that can tell you banal things. Others subject themselves willingly to provide apps with personal information without fully understanding the ramifications of their actions.

Worse, some devices now require on-air activation, and an on-line account creation. You have to ask yourself, why do I have to register on-line to have my "smart" light bulb work in the way it was sold to me. Why do cars now come with embedded cellular services?

Delete your social media accounts, demand privacy and stop using devices and application that have long undecipherable EULAs. These people are selling you in more ways than one. There is life outside your smartphone and gadgets.

Hi Alan, sorry for the delay in replying. Christmas got in the way. Thanks for the great comment, and you are right. There are often some scary things you give away hidden in the many pages of the T&Cs of the stuff we use. Sadly, the world relies on the use of social media. I do for running a business. It is also the most convenient way of keeping in touch with my friends and family worldwide. I do like turning it all off, but even then, here in the UK we have one CCTV camera for every ten people.

Be Wary of Phone Apps: They Are Stealing Your Data