China’s technology industry overseer has begun an official inquiry into how the developers of viral face-swapping app Zao handle user data, responding to an online outcry over privacy.
The Chinese Ministry of Industry and Information Technology asked executives at Momo Inc (陌陌科技) to “rectify” the app, according to a statement posted to its official social media account.
The ministry asked Momo, better known as a developer of hookup and live-streaming services, to only collect and use personal data according to local laws.
The company should also assess security risks on new platforms and prevent the use of information in online fraud, the statement said.
Zao’s developers said in a statement that they would abide by the laws, regulations and requirements of the authorities, and would implement higher standards to secure user data.
The app launched recently and went viral in the world’s biggest smartphone market, topping the free downloads chart on China’s Apple iOS store. It lets users upload a headshot of themselves and swap faces with the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio and Marilyn Monroe in popular movie scenes.
However, delight at the prospect of becoming instant superstars turned sour as privacy implications sank in.
The photo uploads have proven problematic. A user can provide an existing photograph or, following on-screen prompts, create a series of photos where they blink their eyes and open their mouth to help create a more realistic deepfake.
An earlier version of Zao’s user agreement stated the app had “permanent” rights to all user-generated content. The developers have since tweaked the terms and said they were addressing privacy issues.
However, Zao was deluged by a wave of negative reviews that sent its App Store rating to 1.9 stars out of five at one point.
“We understand the concern about privacy. We’ve received the feedback, and will fix the issues that we didn’t take into consideration, which will need a bit of time,” a statement posted to Zao’s Sina Weibo (微博) account said.
The China E-Commerce Research Center on Monday urged authorities to look into the matter.
The app “violates certain laws and standards set by the nation and the industry,” the research house said in a statement.
“When the initial freshness of the play fades, we think users are likely to quickly become bored and we are unsure how the company plans to retain its users,” China International Capital Corp (中國國際金融) analyst Natalie Wu (吳越) wrote in a note on Tuesday.
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