Privacy Concerns Aren't the Only Reason I'm Avoiding FaceApp

It’s basically a Pandora’s box

Ishani Nath
Hands holding a cellphone using the FaceApp
(Photo: Getty, Illustration: Aimee Nishitoba)

My timeline looks more like a time warp these days.

Aside from the terrifying rollbacks of U.S. civil liberties and reactions to Disney’s numerous live-action remakes, my social media feed has been filled with pics of senior citizens. Truly, it looks like the who’s-who of an international retirement community.

In case you somehow missed the trend, this glance into the future is courtesy of the viral sensation FaceApp. (FaceApp actually launched more than two years ago but went viral again this week due to features that allow you to edit a person’s face to make them look older or younger.) Using artificial intelligence, the free photo editing app has other features that add makeup, beards, smiles or even swap genders.  It’s a simple concept, and arguably one we’ve seen before with other online photo filters and apps—but Ramona Pringle, who writes and reports about the relationship between people and technology, isn’t surprised this has gone viral.

“It combines novelty with narcissism,” she says. “There’s been research on what video content tends to go viral, and it usually contains shock or surprise and another strong emotion, so it’s a bit of an instantaneous emotional rollercoaster ride, and I would argue that in a way, this does just that.”

So, it makes sense that this new aging feature took off faster than a DeLorean—but I am not on board for this ride.

You may think that my aversion to the app is because of the deeply concerning privacy risks. What risks you ask? Well, gird your loins. In short, in order to use the app, users agree to “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.” That lengthy run-on-sentence translates to basically FaceApp being able to use those photos of you however they damn well please. Plus, the made-in-Russia app has raised national security and privacy concerns among U.S. lawmakers, prompting investigations from the FBI and the Federal Trade Commission as well as authorities in Poland and Lithuania.

“You’d never just hand a stranger on the street this kind of ownership of your image or identity, no matter how ‘fun’ the supposed product they might claim to be offering in exchange. But while we may be suspicious of the intents of other people, we seem to be more trusting of apps, especially when everyone is is using them,” says Pringle, explaining why the significant privacy concerns haven’t scared people away.

FaceApp has been downloaded by more than 1.6 million people on Google Play and is one of the top downloads on the iOS App Store. Everyone from the Jonas Brothers and Queer Eye‘s Fab Five to Busy Philips and my personal Queen, Mindy Kaling, have used to the app to see what the future may hold.

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I mean…probs🤷‍♀️

A post shared by Busy Philipps (@busyphilipps) on

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Equal parts hilarious and terrifying

A post shared by Mindy Kaling (@mindykaling) on

“It’s hard to think of something that is fun, seemingly frivolous, and a fleeting whim, as something that could have long term consequences… Despite the warnings,” says Pringle, pointing to the Cambridge Analytica scandal and its ties to a “similarly silly personality quiz.” Even with the warnings, she explains that we seem to be trusting of apps, “especially when everyone is using them.”

But my issue with the app isn’t purely about the risk to my personal data. I mean, if I was as genuinely concerned about online privacy as I probably should be, I wouldn’t be on Facebook or Instagram at all. That said, just call me Mariah Carey, because I won’t be partaking in this madness.

My avoidance of FaceApp is largely because I do not want to see what I might look like when I’m elderly. I mean, I’ve face-swapped with my dad (which was, let’s just say, not a cute look) and used plenty of other not-so-flattering filters in the past. Even so, I don’t want to age myself using FaceApp because once I see it, I can’t unsee it.

In the short term, I wonder if being confronted by a wrinkled version of myself, with a few more chins and grey hairs, will kick any of my underlying concerns about aging into high gear.

“We live in a society, especially in the Western world, that puts a lot of emphasis on youth and youth equating beauty,” says Dr. Rose Robbins, a clinical health and rehabilitation psychologist at The Ottawa Hospital. In this way, she explains, FaceApp presents us with exactly the opposite of what people—especially women—have been conditioned to desire and value. “And so when you’re literally confronted by a picture of your face not looking so, it can be quite distressing in some way,” says Dr. Robbins.

The Independent‘s Rachel Tompkins notes that even though the images produced by FaceApp aren’t likely to be very accurate since how we age is determined by a variety of factors, you know like sun exposure and actual genetics, the images of what the future may look like are enough to freak out some users. Multiple cosmetic physicians in the U.K. reported that they’ve already seen a surge in requests for procedures.

And we’ve seen this before. Researchers at the Boston medical centers found that Snapchat filters had the potential to seriously lower users’ self-esteem, and the result was a rise in cosmetic surgery.

“There was some concern raised last year that the prevalence of selfies was fuelling nose jobs, because of the way the camera lens distorts your nose, making it appear larger than it is,” says Pringle. “In a way, this is a distortion too, in that you’re seeing yourself projected 50 years into the future, but with no context, no gradual transition, so perhaps it could be startling for some and do harm to their self image.”

I’m pretty comfortable with the idea of aging, but let’s be honest, my skincare regimen currently includes far more serums, sunscreen and anti-aging products than it did when I was in my early 20s. Having witnessed my friends react to their FaceApp photos with LOLs of disgust—many noting that they’re shocked at their appearance and they hope they don’t end up looking like that—not using the app feels like somewhat of a protection mechanism. Personally, I’d like to keep that Pandora’s box closed.

Looking at the bigger, unfiltered picture, I realized that my avoidance of FaceApp is about something deeper than my potential future appearance. In 2017, a study of more than 2,000 adults in Germany and Spain found that only 1% of participants wanted to know what the future held, regardless if that prediction was positive or negative. And—yet again—it turns out that I am not the 1%.

“In Greek mythology, Cassandra, daughter of the king of Troy, had the power to foresee the future. But, she was also cursed and no one believed her prophecies,” Gerd Gigerenzer, the study’s lead author said in a press release. “In our study, we’ve found that people would rather decline the powers that made Cassandra famous, in an effort to forgo the suffering that knowing the future may cause, avoid regret and also maintain the enjoyment of suspense that pleasurable events provide.”

That’s exactly why I’m steering clear of the FaceApp trend. Sure, it isn’t exactly a crystal ball, but for me, actively avoiding this AI-generated window into the future allows me to picture the years ahead as full of possibilities, wrinkles or no wrinkles.

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