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Following on from the recent FaceApp Challenge craze, another deepfake app Zao has gone viral in China. It rocketed to the top of the iOS App Store in China within 48 hours of its release at the end of last month. However, like FaceApp, Zao quickly attracted scrutiny over potential privacy leaks.

Zao is a face-swapping app that uses deepfake technology to let users change their faces with celebrities in a mere 10 seconds with just one photo needed. The app is designed just for entertainment, but it soon received a backlash on social media due to its user agreement.

The original agreement allowed Zao “free, irrevocable, perpetual, transferable, and re-licensable rights” to all user-generated content as well as full copyright and ownership, triggering widespread debate on whether the clause violates users’ data privacy. While Zao moved swiftly to change the fine print, the damage was already done. The app was bombarded with thousands of negative reviews, and its average rating stands at 1.5 out of 5 in the App Store.

With the rise of digital payment as well as facial recognition payment, faces have become just a crucial part of a user’s data makeup.

“In fact, nowadays people’s faces also represent a symbol of authority, it is not just about a look anymore,” Stella Huang, a college student in Shanghai, told TechNode. “So I feel that there is indeed a risk,” she added.

It only takes five seconds to swap your face with Leonardo DiCaprio using deepfake technology, an artificial intelligence-based human image synthesis technique. It started trending in 2017 after a Reddit user named “deepfakes” uploaded a series of self-made face-swapping videos and since then it has become a controversial technology due to ethical risks.

“Deepfake technology is not very mature now, so it’s easy to recognize the differences between the real thing,” said another student Shen Shiyu. “But when this technology does mature, does that mean some original videos and information will be replaced and we won’t be able to figure out what’s real?”

The unexpected Zao fad laid bare the problems of personal information protection in China. College student Wang Yunjuan told TechNode that she had turned off her fingerprint and face recognition payment because of concerns over personal information leaks. “All the information links together,” she said.

“I do worry about my privacy,” Huang said. “Because no one cares about my data when I’m a nobody. But if people think they can make money from my information, it makes me worry about the security of my data.”

Most interviewees expressed the need for more regulations to protect personal information. “The law has not kept up with the development of the internet,” said Yin Yan, a student in Shanghai.

“Even if you are intentionally protecting your personal information, there is still a chance that it might leak. So I will always have a sense of fear,” said Tony Wang, another local student.

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Shi Jiayi

Shi Jiayi is the Shanghai-based visual reporter helping provide multimedia elements about China’s fast-changing technology and culture. She holds a B.A. in Convergence Journalism from the University...

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