'Deepfake' app Zao sparks major privacy concerns in China

A clause in the Zao app's user agreement allowed developers to retain images of users and sell them to third parties.
Written by Cyrus Lee, Contributor

Zao, a face-swapping app that allows users to imitate famous actors, is embroiled in a major privacy controversy in China as a clause in the app's user agreement allows developers to retain facial images and sell them to third parties without needing consent from users.

The Chinese app, owned by Chinese social media developer Momo, provides filters that allow users to pretend to be in blockbuster movies by uploading pictures of themselves onto the app. It creates simulated video clips using artificial intelligence (AI) "deepfake" technology that creates human image synthesis.

Released on August 30, Zao immediately became popular among Chinese consumers and topped the Apple App Store's free entertainment app list on Sunday, two days after its launch.

However, some users then found a clause in the app's user agreement, which says the developers can retain facial images uploaded by users and trade them to third parties without the need for consent. Several lawyers have slammed the app for invading the privacy of the users, calling for the boycott of the app.

Momo has since deleted the controversial clause and issued an apology, stressing the app would not store the biometric information of users nor would it excessively collect user information.

See also: 160,000 resumes on Chinese recruitment site Zhilian allegedly exposed and leaked

In its updated app clause, Zao says that the transferring of data to third parties would require authorisation from users.

Still, WeChat, the popular Chinese messaging app that has more than 1 billion active users, has banned the circulation of Zao video clips on its platforms.

Responding to reports that China's Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) has requested rectification of the app on September 4, Momo said it has been actively working with authorities to strictly strengthen its content management and improve various management mechanisms to ensure the safety of personal information and data security of users. 

As facial payment has been enabled across several platforms including Alipay, the mobile payment of Alibaba Group, some users also worry that the leak of their facial images and the simulated video clips could result in potential financial losses.

Ant Financial, which owns Alipay, nevertheless said the "deepfake" is impossible to fraud its facial payment technology as it adopts 3D face recognition technology. The company also added that it 3D face recognition technology combines software and hardware to determine whether the facial information is generated by a photo, video, or software simulation. 

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