The FBI says the photo-editing app that went viral this summer is a 'significant counterintelligence threat' because of its ties to Russia



  • FaceApp, the viral photo-editing app that can make you look old or swap your gender using artificial intelligence, has come under close scrutiny because of its data security and Russian origins. 
  • Back in July, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer wrote a letter to the FBI and Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to express his concerns over the national security risk posed by the popular FaceApp app that has proliferated across social media channels.
  • The FBI responded to Schumer in a letter dated November 25th, informing him that FaceApp, along with any other mobile app developed in Russia, was a potential counterintelligence threat. Schumer tweeted a copy of that letter Monday. 
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The FBI says that it considers “any mobile application or similar product developed in Russia, such as FaceApp, to be a significant counterintelligence threat.” 

The popular photo-editing platform FaceApp debuted in 2017, but it exploded in popularity this summer as social media influencers flooded feeds with selfies that used the app’s filters to alter their age or gender— usually to hilarious effect. It was even briefly the most popular free app in both the Apple Store and Google Play. 

But the Russian-developed app also drew regulatory scrutiny thanks to its data policies: photos added to FaceApp were uploaded to a server for processing before being sent back to the user, but its terms of service did not specify how long the data could be kept.

National security concerns mounted, as people worried that sensitive biometric data could be accessed by a foreign government. When it went viral in July, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer immediately wrote to the FBI and the FTC to express his concern about FaceApp’s Russia ties.  The Democratic National Committee also issued warnings to the 2020 Democratic candidates about the app and urged them not to use it.

The Russian government’s role in the 2016 election, its pattern of hacking US intelligence, and its longtime history competing with the US in the 20th century formed the foundations of the FaceApp backlash. 

The FBI responded to Senator Schumer’s letter on November 25th, to say that it considers “any mobile application or similar product developed in Russia, such as FaceApp, to be a significant counterintelligence threat.” 

The senator shared a copy of the FBI’s response via Twitter on Monday, and said this was “a warning to share with your family & friends.”

Russia’s newly implemented internet sovereignty law requires internet providers to install hardware to allow government authorities to locate and block sources of web traffic. This, along with its privacy and terms of use policies, seems to form the basis for the FBI’s concerns. 

“The legal mechanisms available to the Government of Russia that permit access to data,” made FaceApp, along with any other mobile application developed in Russia a counterintelligence threat, according to the agency’s letter.

The letter also warned about Russian intelligence’s “robust cyber exploitation capabilities, and warned that authorities could “remotely access all communications and servers on Russian networks,” without requests to internet providers. 

FaceApp did not immediately respond to a request for comment. In a July statement to TechCrunch, it said it did not transfer any data to Russia, where its R&D team is based. 

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