Chinese Deepfake App ZAO Sparks Deep Privacy Concerns as it Goes Viral

Chinese Deepfake App ZAO (Source: Shaw/Pandaily)

After a three-day viral swarm across the global internet, Chinese deepfake app ZAO is now facing severe backlash from the public due to privacy concerns. Chinese social media giant WeChat has temporarily disabled access to the app from the platform today with the display message, “The web page has security risks and has been reported by many people. Access has been denied.”

Chinese social media platforms have begun to take action against unauthorized use of privacy data to protect personal information and establish a safer internet environment for users.

ZAO, a face-swapping app developed by popular Chinese dating app Momo, went viral on Friday following its release. Two days later, the app has topped IOS App Store free apps’ downloading list, according to The Paper, while simultaneously raising privacy concerns.

ZAO boasts a fun and engaging tagline that stated that the app can place anyone inside their favorite TV show or movie based on just a selfie. It does this by using a combination of facial scanning tech and artificial image synthesis.

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One of the reasons for the rising concerns over identity theft and the leak of personal banking information is that facial recognition technology is widely used in China for payment services, smartphone unlocking and access granting through various secure institutions including schools, companies and banks. Alipay, the country’s biggest mobile payment service that implements facial scan technology for payments, has been forced to reassure users that ZAO’s deepfakes can not be used to bypass their security checks.

Chinese netizens have taken to social media also to express concern that ZAO’s face-swapping tech offers huge potential for criminals, either through the creation of malicious materials or by using it to dupe a user’s family and friends.

“After getting your phone number, they [ZAO] can effectively impersonate you and video chat with your family members using the face-swapping technology,” said a user on WeChat. Another added to the stream of concerns, “For those of you who have used the app, aren’t you afraid of getting your Alipay account accessed by them?”

“We fully understand your concerns about privacy. The questions you have raised have been well received. We will make the necessary changes accordingly. We just need a little more time,” said ZAO through its official account on Weibo, the Chinese micro-blogging platform, on September 1.

Netizens have urged ZAO to clear all the data that has been collected, as well as the dynamic [facial] recognition data. The app replied through its official Weibo account, “Dynamic facial recognition data is not saved nor uploaded. They are used solely for verification purposes, which will be explained in detail in our new version release.”

ZAO’s previous user agreement effectively granted the app’s developers the global rights to use any imagery created on the app for free. Once a user has opted in, they would be unable to revoke the agreement. After the controversies kicked off, ZAO amended its user agreement, saying that content generated on the app will now “no longer be used for other purposes without the user’s prior consent.” It also says that if a user deletes content on ZAO, it will be wiped from ZAO’s databases.

According to data provision platform Tianyancha, ZAO is wholly owned by Changsha Deep Integration Network Technology, the legal representative of which is the co-founder of Momo. ZAO stated on Weibo that the platform spent over 7 million yuan renting a server in August, and has already used up a third of its resources after a three-day launch.