Thank God for technology. How else would we know what Gordon Ramsay would look like at 92? Or the Jonas Brothers as septuagenarian has-been heart-throbs. Or Ludacris, still furious but somewhat less fast a few decades down the line.
FaceApp, a nifty download that can age you decades with a single snapshot, is filling the Web with geriatrics — and raising as many eyebrows as it has greyed. The product had a flare of popularity that petered out two years ago amid criticism that its “ethnicity filters” were a form of digital blackface. This time the concern is about privacy. Americans may have finally realised that something is rotten on the internet. But do they understand what that something is?
The criticism of FaceApp is, essentially, that it’s an app. It offers you something fun, but it takes something in return: in this case, your personal information, and lots of it. That includes irrevocable and royalty-free rights to the pictures you upload, which according to FaceApp’s terms of service, it can repurpose for pretty much whatever it wants. You also agree to surrender classic tracking data such as IP address and websites visited.
We’re not just letting Google’s maps tool track us in exchange for its help in getting us around, or allowing Facebook to figure out what shoes we almost bought yesterday so that we can use a powerful worldwide communications service for free.
All this makes FaceApp pretty much like everyone else. If you’re not paying for a tool with cash, you’re probably paying some other way. Your weather app might not only tell data brokers where you’ve been and when, but it also might have tapped into your camera. And don’t get me started on your favourite game featuring adorable cartoon critters. Some smartphone tools do ask first for your information, if opaquely. Some don’t bother. Almost every website on the internet, including this one, has embedded trackers.
Americans have some ambient awareness of these ubiquitous practices, but surveys suggest that’s about where it stops. The concerns about FaceApp only really arose when amateur investigators pointed out that the company was based in Russia, prompting speculation that Vladimir Putin was amassing American photos to train facial recognition software or serve some other odious end. But it turns out FaceApp’s servers live in the United States, and so far, there’s no evidence of any dastardly plot to transfer what’s collected back to the motherland. The KGB isn’t going to come knocking because you thought it would be funny to have artificial intelligence stick a beard on your face.
That it took fears of a Russian ruse to give us pause before opening our lives to a random app operated by who-knows-whom in who-knows-where says more about the American attitude toward technology than it does about FaceApp. It’s boring to dig into the details of how developers mine consumer data for money. But a nefarious face-gathering operation coordinated by a foreign adversary? That’s the stuff of spy novels.
This lack of interest in the technicalities cuts to the core of the country’s privacy problem. We say we don’t want to be snooped on. But because we don’t bother to learn how snooping actually happens, we agree to all manner of abuses whenever necessary to get something we want. Consider the backlash that followed the FaceApp backlash: Who cares! Phooey on privacy, many Americans seemed to say, and then they smiled for the camera.
Information-inhaling services tell us we’re making trade-offs, and we are. But we’re not just letting Google’s maps tool track us in exchange for its help in getting us around, or allowing Facebook to figure out what shoes we almost bought yesterday so that we can use a powerful worldwide communications service for free. We’re also sacrificing untold data to reap absolutely useless rewards, with no idea what that data is worth to the companies we give it to — much less what it should be worth to us.
We want to find out how we’re going to die or whether we’ll get a boyfriend in 2020. We want to hurl grumpy wingless birds at building blocks and crush copious candy. We want to see what we will look like when we’re old, darn it, and we want to see it pronto! Of course we’ll click through a slew of permissions; what a waste of time to read about what those permissions actually permit. The whole point is not waiting 70 years.
The gratification is immediate, while the downsides of sharing so much data, whether it’s exposing ourselves to a breach or inviting in manipulative advertising or just relinquishing any claim to a private sphere of life, might not come for a long time. When it does, we might not even notice it. It’s easy to scoff at what can look like wilful ignorance, but there’s a limit to what a reasonable consumer could — or should — be expected to understand. Companies know that, and they exploit it.
Americans have been told what FaceApp might do, and most of them stopped paying attention as soon as they found out the oligarchs weren’t cackling over it at the Kremlin. Americans understand (if vaguely) that there’s a price being paid, and we keep right on downloading. The future is starting to look a lot worse than a 92-year-old Master Chef host.
— Washington Post
Molly Roberts writes about technology and society for The Post’s Opinions section.