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FBI calls FaceApp a 'potential counterintelligence threat' from Russia - CNET

FBI calls FaceApp a 'potential counterintelligence threat' from Russia - CNET
FBI calls FaceApp a 'potential counterintelligence threat' from Russia - CNET

The FBI said it considers FaceApp a potential "counterintelligence threat."Sarah Tew/CNET

FaceApp might have been all fun and games for celebrities, but for the Federal Bureau of Investigation, it's considering the Russian-based app as a potential national security threat. 

In a Nov. 25 letter to Sen. Chuck Schumer, a Democrat from New York, FBI assistant director Jill Tyson said that the agency was investigating FaceApp over its ties to Russia. The app, which took photos and added effects that could make people look older or add a smile to their pictures, is based in Russia. 

"The FBI considers any mobile application or similar product developed in Russia, such as FaceApp, to be a potential counterintelligence threat, based on the data the product collects, its privacy and terms of use policies, and the legal mechanisms available to the Government of Russia that permit access to data within Russia's borders," Tyson wrote in the letter.

The FBI's answers came as a response to a letter Sen. Schumer sent on July 17, when FaceApp was at its height of popularity. FaceApp became part of a viral challenge as celebrities like the Jonas Brothers and LeBron James were using its filters to digitally age themselves.

Skeptics raised concerns with FaceApp after looking closer at its terms of services and finding that the privacy policy allowed for the app's developers to get permanent rights to people's image, as well as provide the data to advertisers. 

Security researchers did not find nefarious activities going on with FaceApp, though the FBI has more concerns about the app's origins than the software itself. 

Russia's data retention laws allows the nation's government to request for data on Russian citizens from companies operating within its borders. The FBI noted Russia's System of Operative Search Measures, which allows for its intelligence agencies to get records of communications from internet service providers. 

It also raised potential concerns of disinformation from FaceApp, as the app collected people's images, which could be used for manipulation. Russia played a major role in the 2016 US presidential election for its disinformation campaign on politics, and US officials worry that it will ramp up during the election in 2020.  

The FBI did not cite or provide any evidence of spying or election-tampering from FaceApp's developers. FaceApp did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

The company has denied its ties to the Russian government on multiple occasions, writing that it deletes images from its servers in 48 hours, and that its users' data is not stored in the country.  

"If the FBI assesses that elected officials, candidates, political campaigns, or political parties are targets of foreign influence operations involving FaceApp, the FBI would coordinate notifications, investigation and engage the Foreign Influence Task Force, as appropriate," Tyson said in the letter.

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