Zao, a new Chinese app that lets users swap their faces with celebrities, sports stars or anyone else in a video clip, racked up millions of downloads on the weekend, but swiftly drew fire over privacy issues.
The app’s surge in popularity and sudden backlash from some users highlights how artificial intelligence (AI) technologies bring about new concerns surrounding identity verification.
Zao was published by Momo Inc, best-known as makers of a dating app that later transformed into a livestreaming service. The company listed on the New York Stock Exchange in 2014.
It was uploaded to China’s iOS App Store on Friday and immediately went viral.
According to a post from the app makers on China’s Twitter-like Weibo, Zao’s servers nearly crashed due to the surge in traffic.
According to App Annie, a firm that tracks app downloads all over the world, Zao was the most-downloaded free app in China’s iOS App Store as of Sunday.
Consumers sign up for Zao with their phone number and upload images of their face, using photographs taken with their smartphone.
They can then choose from a range of videos of celebrities on which to superimpose their face, and share the videos with their friends.
In addition to Chinese celebrities, other famous faces on the app include Leonardo DiCaprio and Marilyn Monroe.
Gu Shi, a 21-year-old student in Shanghai, downloaded Zao after seeing her friends post clips on their WeChat feeds.
“I’ve never tried using Japanese makeup and hairstyles, because it’s too complicated to do all by myself,” she said.
“This app gave me a chance to try a totally different style from my normal life,” she added.
However, the photo uploads have proven problematic.
An earlier version of Zao’s user agreement stated that the app had “free, irrevocable, permanent, transferable, and relicense-able” rights to all this user-generated content.
Zao has since updated its terms — the app now says it will not use headshots or mini videos uploaded by users for purposes other than to improve the app or things pre-agreed by users.
If users delete the content they uploaded, the app will erase it from its servers as well.
However, the reaction has not been quick enough, as Zao has been deluged by a wave of negative reviews that now sees its App Store rating stand at 1.9 stars out of five, following more than 4,000 reviews.
Many users complained about the privacy issue.
“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 account on social-media platform Weibo said.
It is not the first time such face-swapping apps have enjoyed popularity either in China or around the world, but Zao’s smooth and quick integration of faces into videos and Internet memes is what makes it stand out.
The machine learning technology underpinning deepfakes of this kind has matured rapidly, to the point where it can believably impersonate famous personalities like Joe Rogan and make them say whatever the aspiring faker types.
US politicians are wrestling with the issue of how to regulate this emergent misinformation threat, and US Representative Adam Schiff has described it as a source of “nightmarish scenarios” for next year’s presidential election.
At the individual level, FaceApp is the most famous and notorious deepfake face-modification app to date. It went viral globally on two different occasions, showing people how they would look in their old age or with their gender flipped.
The app also kicked up an unintentional privacy scare with its practice of uploading images to servers to be processed, illustrating a growing sensitivity to how user data are handled.
After users flooded WeChat, China’s most widely used social media platform, with Zao-enabled short clips and GIFs, the Tencent Holdings-operated messaging app banned links to the service, saying there have been numerous reports about it presenting “security risks.”
Tencent did not immediately comment on the decision.
“I just realized the terms are so unfair but it’s too late,” one unhappy iOS reviewer of Zao wrote. “Nowadays people don’t usually bother to read them.”
“Rubbish, hooligan software,” another reviewer said.
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