NewProfilePic’s Russian developer denies it ‘sucks’ data

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Last week, social media feeds were teeming with people whose avatars suddenly changed. Instead of a simple head shot, their images looked like oil paintings, cartoons or watercolors, the result of a viral new smartphone app called NewProfilePic Picture Editor.

Yes, another face-changing app had hit the net. Android and iPhone owners picked it up, pushing NewProfilePic to the top of those platforms’ respective best app rankings, and users had fun converting their faces into works of art. This type of application is stupid and fun, but also problematic.

Whenever you upload a photo of your face to an app or social media platform, there is potential for that image to be abused. In theory, it can be used to improve facial recognition platforms designed for surveillance. Or, in the most paranoid view: used by future governments to track your whereabouts.

Next came warnings about NewProfilePic, added as comments and replies on Facebook and Twitter, urging users to be aware of the risks. But those caveats kicked into high gear when it was discovered that the app appeared to have links to Russia. And they got out of hand when a British tabloid, The Daily Mail, appeared to find evidence linking the app to an address not far from the Kremlin.

The Daily Mail quoted experts who warned of the amount of information collected by the app, and the tabloid’s notoriously sensational headline shouted that it “sucks up your details”.

Except that none of this is entirely accurate, according to information on the company’s website and statements given to venerable fact-checking sites Politifact and snopes.com.

Although founder Victor Sazhin was born in Russia — and grew up both there and in Ukraine — he no longer lives there, a spokesperson told Politifact and Snopes. The company that owns the copyrights to NewProfilePic and several older face-editing titles, Linerock Investments, is based in the British Virgin Islands. The development group, identified as Informe Laboratories on the Apple and Google app stores, is a virtual company, with development teams in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus.

The company also said that app data and photos are stored in Amazon Web Services and Microsoft Azure servers in the United States.

The Daily Mail story found a website domain registration for newprofilepic.com with an address in Moscow which was Szahin’s former home address. Shortly after the Daily Mail article published last week, the registration was changed to a Florida address.

Linerock has launched a campaign to combat what it calls “fake news”, pointing to Politico and Snopes articles. He posted a webpage at facts.pho.to/help asking fans to let them know the app is safe, including details about the company’s history back to 2008.

Looking at all these details, it’s clear that NewProfilePic has been caught up in the general distrust of apps that manipulate users’ faces and in the demonization of anything Russian following the invasion of Ukraine by this country.

This isn’t the first time that one of the company’s apps has been rumored. In 2020, Linerock’s Photo Lab app was accused of selling data to the CIA.

I installed NewProfilePic on my iPhone to check it out for myself. The app is very simple and, according to its profile in the iOS App Store, does not collect as much data. It’s certainly less data-intensive than mainstream apps like Facebook or TikTok. It doesn’t require you to create an account, enter an email address, provide access to your contact list, or track your location.

The app requests access to your photos, but you can do this either for the full camera roll or for individual images. According to the company, the photos are only stored for two weeks.

If you connect from the app to a social network such as Instagram or Facebook, the app’s privacy policy (which is shared by all Linerock software products) states that it may use “information from those accounts (like your username or profile picture)”. But on an iPhone at least, it doesn’t rely on that type of connection; it does not appear in the list of connected applications of Facebook or Instagram in my accounts.

And the policy states that certain information may be used with third parties and to serve advertisements. Again, this is common parlance in most ad-based applications, as NewProfilePic does. (Apple allows its users to block this type of third-party tracking when they initially run any app.) The app also recently implemented in-app purchases for a “pro” mode that unlocks additional features.

This isn’t the first time one of these Russian-rooted tweaking apps has sparked controversy. In 2017, FaceApp went viral for its ability to transform faces using artificial intelligence. Based in Russia, FaceApp only raised the alarm in 2019 when it exploded after adding a feature that realistically ages faces. In a Washington Post article, its founder denied that he passed photos and data to Russian leaders, and a review of his privacy policy and data transmissions by tech columnist Geoffrey Fowler confirmed the founder’s claims.

But that’s not to say that images of faces posted online have never been used for nefarious purposes. A company called Clearview AI scraped billions of photos from the web and social media to power a facial recognition product that was then sold to law enforcement. After a 2020 New York Times article detailed the company’s actions, it became the target of litigation and regulators in the United States and abroad.

Chris Bronk, an assistant professor of computer science and information systems at the University of Houston, who focuses on security, said it’s very possible that developers of any facial app could “totally build an image database.

“And then there’s always the issue of other data collected by the app, but Apple, in particular, makes some of that activity much more difficult,” Bronk said.

In other words: be careful about the data collected by any application, face-morphing or not, that you install on your devices. Apple and Google provide details of what is collected. While browsing through this information isn’t as fun as posting glitzy avatars to your Facebook profile, you’ll at least be informed of what’s really going on.

dsilverman@outlook.com

twitter.com/dsilverman

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