There’s a lot that the viral photo-editing app could do with a giant database of faces....

The context: FaceApp, the photo-editing app that uses AI to touch up your face, has come under scrutiny since going viral. It’s been around since 2017, but a newly added feature that allows users to see what they might look like when they age has catapulted it back into popularity. Now the fact that it’s owned by the Russia-based company Wireless Lab has people spooked.

The concern: According to some reports, the app has amassed more than 150 million photos of people’s faces since launch—and its terms of service stipulate that the company can use the photos however it wants, in perpetuity. The company has already said in a statement that it deletes most images from its servers within 48 hours of upload, and doesn’t share data to third parties. Despite this, some Democratic members of the US Congress are now calling for an FBI investigation into the company. Users are also worried that their face could be used to track them in the future through face recognition.

The reality: Okay, so let’s imagine FaceApp did decide to use the photos they’ve gathered beyond the users’ reason for uploading them. What could they actually do? It’s highly unlikely they would use them to train algorithms for identifying your face. First, the majority of users don’t give FaceApp their name or other identifying information, which would be required for recognition. Second, although it is technically possible for a system to learn to recognize someone from a single photo, the accuracy would be poor. There would also be much easier means for obtaining the specific photos of a target individual, such as through their social-media profiles and Flickr uploads. 

Down the rabbit hole: There are other ways to use a giant database of faces, however. Here are just a few:

Does it matter? While these use cases raise major privacy concerns, it’s worth noting that there are many other open-source databases of face photos and people’s videos that may or may not already include your likeness.

Such databases, made of public media scraped from the internet, have long been a basis of AI research. Even if FaceApp didn’t have its own stockpile of images, it would be easy to find others from the plethora of options out there. Perhaps that’s the greater point to the story: FaceApp merely highlights how much we’ve already lost control of our digital data.


Teen sexting is an overblown moral panic, according to a new study

While parents and media freak out about sexting teens, one study says it and “sextortion” fears are inflated.

A study just published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior of nearly 6,000 teens shows that while many had sent and received sexually explicit images, only about 3% of 12- to 17-year-olds in the US had...

The vast majority of teens don’t sext. About 14% of middle and high school students reported getting a sexually explicit image from someone they were dating, while 11% said they sent one.  Around 14% of respondents said they had gotten a sexually explicit image from someone they weren’t romantically involved with. 

The data subverts popular conceptions of sexting. About one-third of students reported sexting only once. But the number of students who report sexting “many times” is less than 2%. Compare that to one study’s estimate that 4 out of 5 adults engage in sexting. In other words, while some teens have sexted once, it’s rare to find a serially sexting teen.

Other surprises: 

—Boys and girls were equally likely to receive requests for explicit pictures from people they weren’t dating. In fact, “Boys are doing it more than girls,” coauthor Justin Patchin said. “We have this preconceived notion [that girls are sexting more], but boys are more likely to receive and send sexts.”

—Fifteen seemed to be the peak age for sexting, with a little over 18% of 15-year-olds reporting that they sext. After that, teens were less likely to sext with each passing year. The least likely ages overall were 12 and 17.

—Teens who identified as not straight in the survey were almost twice as likely to engage in sexting as their heterosexual counterparts.

What does it mean? Sexting—at least according to this survey—isn’t the epidemic that media has made it out to be. The sense that all teens are sexting all the time has been emphasized by everyone from the Atlantic to season 2 of American Vandal to Whoopi Goldberg on the View to leak after leak of Hollywood celebrity nudes. But the reality seems to be that if and when teens sext, it’s more often than not a one-time thing.

Does this mean teens don’t sext? No, they do—just not “many” times (Patchin said the definition of “many” was left up to the survey responder). And when they do, it’s almost always consensually.

So about “sextortion”: Using sexually explicit images as a way to extort subjects of these sexts is an issue, as most recently seen in the case of actress Bella Thorne, who was threatened with blackmail before releasing her images of her own accord. But it’s a small one: only 4% of teens reported sharing a sext with someone without their permission, and about the same percentage thought an explicit image of themselves had been shared without their permission. “Findings from our study provide a very important message for youth who may believe media headlines that suggest sexting is more widespread than it actually is,” coauthor Sameer Hinduja said in a press release.

But take the study results with a grain of salt. Patchin said that he and Hinduja defined sexting as sending sexually explicit images—not sending racy texts. So it’s possible that teens aren’t sending R-rated images at the rate they’re typing up erotic messages. And it’s important to note that teens self-reported their results, which opens up the possibility of bias—something previous studies on teen sexting have struggled with.

Bottom line: Teens are sexting, but probably not as much as we’ve been led to believe.


TR 35

Innovators Under 35 | 2019

It’s part of our ethos that technology can and should be a force for good. In these profiles you’ll find people employing innovative methods to treat disease, to fight online harassment, and to create the next big battery breakthrough.