To Share or Not to Share: The Allure and Folly of the FaceApp
By Tyler Mulhearn, PhD
If you found yourself scrolling through social media earlier this month, there is probably a good chance you came across something unexpected: photos of your friends as older versions of themselves. The basis for this strange phenomenon is a mobile app called FaceApp. Celebrities from LeBron James to the Jonas brothers played a part in the fun and uploaded photos of themselves. Just as quickly as the app surged in popularity came a surge of concerns regarding the origins of the app and intended use of users’ data. US Democratic lawmakers such as Chuck Schumer called for FBI investigations into the app.
However, initial fears by lawmakers and the general public alike may have been slightly overblown. The app only has access to uploaded photos, not users’ entire camera rolls. Regardless, this raises several concerns regarding data privacy and data sharing. Ben Lamm, CEO of technology company Hypergiant, summarized the concerns by stating this recent incident, “Does show the ease with which potentially malicious products or news can spread that seem ‘fun.’ What else can spread while also stealing our information or potentially attacking our systems? We must become a culture that learns to ask questions and protects ourselves.”
Lamm’s comments allude to several key points regarding data privacy and data sharing. For one, app developers are vying for a limited commodity in today’s world: attention. Social media and mobile games aim to steer our attention away from our analog lives. From the user’s perspective, we all need to be careful and vigilant about being drawn towards “fun” and new apps and technology. Hidden under the glitz and glam of a fun, new social media tool or app could lie malicious attempts to steal users’ data. Of course, this is not always the case, but one must be careful the next time a new phenomenon emerges on social media.
From the company’s perspective, several recommendations are in store. First, organizations should be transparent with their stakeholders. In the case of FaceApp, it is unclear to what extent users provided full consent before they uploaded their images. Not to mention, very few people are willing to read through long terms and conditions pages before using any service. Tech companies would be well-suited to provide clear, unambiguous instructions to the user on what information will be shared by the user and stored by the company.
Second, there are larger concerns regarding the societal effects of being secretive with data. If the data is misused in any way or provided to a malicious party, many users could have their data in jeopardy. Consider recent data breaching examples of Experian or Target. The risk of having one’s data compromised is very scary and very real. In fact, many companies are now offering dark web scanning services to allow users to see what data of theirs is stored on the dark web. At the moment, data management is looking like the Wild Wild West and it isn’t going to change without conscious effort from companies. As data privacy is likely to become an increasing consumer concern, organizations may give themselves a competitive edge by making data privacy and consumer rights a primary concern.
In today’s data-driven world, whoever owns the data owns the power. However, embedded in this newfound maxim for our current society is an obligation for users to be vigilant in understanding how their data is shared and for companies to be transparent in communicating how the data is stored and used. A failure to do either could leave us in a world where the data and the power lies in the wrong hands.
The Ethics Advantage Team