Following the success of the similar face-modification app, FaceApp, which went viral earlier this year with its ability to change users’ faces so they are either the opposite gender or look a lot older, another app that uses so-called “deepfake technology” has gone viral on free app download charts.

The Chinese app Zao allows users to upload a photo of themselves to the app, which is then swapped with the faces of celebrities like Leonardo DiCaprio, Marilyn Monroe, or TV characters like Sheldon Cooper of The Bing Bang Theory in some of their most iconic scenes.

Deepfake technology recently came into the spotlight again when a video of comedian and actor Bill Hader was released, in which his face was morphed into that of Tom Cruise as he was doing an impression of the Hollywood actor. The creator of the video said that it was made to “create awareness of misinformation and the capabilities of artificial intelligence in the age of fake news and doctored footage”.

Deepfakes, or realistic-looking or sounding video and audio recordings, are created when a neural network is fed images and video of the subject someone wishes to use, after which the artificial intelligence network is able to make statistical connections between the visual appearance of the subject and those aspects of the subject that a user wants to fake. Using generative adversarial networks (GANs), entirely new images can also be conjured. This is a form of machine learning.

Zao’s success on the charts was quickly marred by critique – not by user’s concern that deepfake technology had advanced to the point where it is available to the average Joe in a free app, but because some users raised privacy concerns after reading the user agreement.

To use the app, users can either upload an existing photo, or create a series of photos of them opening their mouth and blinking their eyes to create a more realistic deepfake. While Zao has since updated its terms, an earlier version of the user agreement stated that Zao has “free, irrevocable, permanent, transferable, and relicense-able” rights to all content created by users.

A barrage of negative reviews led to these terms being updated to reflect that the app wouldn’t use headshots or mini videos uploaded by users for any other purpose than to improve the app or for other pre-agreed changes. Content deleted by users would also be deleted from the app’s servers.

The furore is reminiscent of the privacy issues raised about FaceApp earlier this year and highlights that privacy is a subject that modern-day users take very seriously.

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