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Chinese deepfake app Zao sparks privacy row after going viral

September 3, 2019

Critics say face-swap app could spread misinformation on a massive scale

A Chinese app that lets users convincingly swap their faces with film or TV characters has rapidly become one of the country’s most downloaded apps, triggering a privacy row.

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Released on Friday, the Zao app went viral as Chinese users seized on the chance to see themselves act out scenes from well-known movies using deepfake technology, which has already prompted concerns elsewhere over potential misuse.

Users provide a series of selfies in which they blink, move their mouths and make facial expressions, which the app uses to realistically morph the person’s animated likeness on to movies, TV shows or other content.
The company was forced to issue a statement on Sunday pledging changes after critics attacked the app’s privacy policy, which it had “free, irrevocable, permanent, transferable, and relicenseable” rights to all user-generated content.

There has been growing concern over deepfakes, which use artificial intelligence to appear genuine. Critics say the technology can be used to create bogus videos to manipulate elections, defame someone, or potentially cause unrest by spreading misinformation on a massive scale.

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“We understand the concerns about privacy. We’ve received the feedback, and will fix the issues that we didn’t take into consideration, which will take some time,” a statement released by Zao said.

Zao is owned by Momo Inc, a Tinder-like dating service that is listed on the US Nasdaq.

It has since changed its terms to say it will not use headshots or videos uploaded by users, other than to improve the app. It also pledged to remove from its servers any content that was uploaded but subsequently deleted by users.

The backlash has not dented the app’s popularity. As of Monday afternoon it remained the top free download in China, according to the app market data provider App Annie.

Concerns over deepfakes have grown since the 2016 US election campaign, which saw wide use of online misinformation, according to US investigations.

In June, Facebook’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, said the social network was struggling to find ways to deal with deepfake videos, saying they may constitute “a completely different category” of misinformation than anything faced before.

Article by Agence France-Presse in Shanghai
Mon 2 Sep 2019 09.05 EDT

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