Viral Chinese app loses face, but not fans, over privacy concerns

The logo of the Chinese app ZAO, which allows users to swap their faces with celebrities and anyone else, is seen on a mobile phone screen in front of an advertisement of the app, in this illustration picture taken September 2, 2019. (REUTERS)
Updated 03 September 2019
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Viral Chinese app loses face, but not fans, over privacy concerns

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

SHANGHAI: A Chinese face-swapping app that allows users to convincingly superimpose their own likeness over characters in movies or TV shows has rapidly become one of the country's most downloaded apps, but has triggered a backlash over privacy fears.
Released on Friday, the Zao app went viral as Chinese users pounced 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, open their mouth and make other expressions, which the app will then use to realistically morph the person's animated likeness onto movies, TV shows or other content.
But the company was forced to issue a statement on Sunday pledging changes after critics attacked the app's privacy policy which gave it "free, irrevocable, permanent, transferable, and relicenseable" rights to all user-generated content.
Zao's soaring popularity comes amid growing concern over deepfakes -- which are altered by using artificial intelligence to appear genuine.
Critics warn that the technology can be used to create bogus videos to manipulate elections, defame someone, or potentially spark unrest by spreading misinformation on a massive scale.
"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 Chinese dating service that is listed on the US Nasdaq.
The app has since changed its terms to make clear it would 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, however.
As of Monday afternoon it remained the top free download in China, according to app market data provider App Annie.
Concerns over deepfakes have grown since the 2016 US election campaign which saw wide use of online disinformation, according to US investigations.
In June, Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg said the social network was struggling to find ways to deal with deepfake videos, saying they may be "a completely different category" of misinformation from anything faced before.


Huawei in public test as it unveils sanction-hit phone

Updated 19 September 2019

Huawei in public test as it unveils sanction-hit phone

  • Hit by US sanctions, Huawei's Mate 30 will not be allowed to use Google’s Play Store
  • Household-name services like WhatsApp, Instagram and Google Maps will be unavailable.
BERLIN: Chinese tech giant Huawei launches its latest high-end smartphone in Munich on Thursday, the first that could be void of popular Google apps because of US sanctions.
Observers are asking whether a phone without the Silicon Valley software that users have come to depend on can succeed, or whether Huawei will have found a way for buyers to install popular apps despite the constraints.
The company has maintained a veil of secrecy over its plans, set to be dropped at a 1200 GMT press conference revealing the Mate 30 and Mate 30 Pro models.
Huawei, targeted directly by the United States as part of a broader trade conflict with Beijing, was added to a “blacklist” in Washington in May.
Since then, it has been illegal for American firms to do business with the Chinese firm, suspected of espionage by President Donald Trump and his administration.
As a result, the new Mate will run on a freely available version of Android, the world’s most-used phone operating system that is owned by the search engine heavyweight.
While Mate 30 owners will experience little difference in the use of the system, the lack of Google’s Play Store — which provides access to hundreds of thousands of third-party apps and games as well as films, books and music — could hobble them.
Household-name services like WhatsApp, Instagram and Google Maps will be unavailable.
The tech press reports that this yawning gap in functionality has left some sellers reluctant to stock the new phones, fearing a wave of rapid-fire returns from dissatisfied customers.
Huawei president Richard Yu said at Berlin’s IFA electronics fair this month that his engineers found a “very simple” way to install the hottest apps without going via the Play Store.
Huawei could offer its own app store in a preliminary version, setting itself up as a competitor to the dominant Apple and Google offerings, observers speculate.
Over the longer term, the company could build out a similar “ecosystem” of devices, apps and services as the Silicon Valley companies that would bind users more closely to it.
The world’s second-largest smartphone maker after Samsung, Huawei earlier this month presented its proprietary operating system HarmonyOS, a potential replacement for Android.
The Mate 30 will not yet have HarmonyOS installed.
But it could make for a new round in the decades-old “OS wars” between Microsoft’s Windows and Apple’s Mac OS, then Android versus Apple’s iOS.
Meanwhile, Eric Xu, current holder of Huawei’s rotating chief executive chair, has urged Europe to foster an alternative to Google and Apple.
That could provide an opening for Huawei to build up Europe’s market of 500 million well-off consumers as a stronghold against American rivals.
“If Europe had its own ecosystem for smart devices, Huawei would use it... that would resolve the problem of European digital dependency” on the United States, Xu told German business daily Handelsblatt.
He added that his company would be prepared to invest in developing such joint European-Chinese projects.