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Face-swap app ZAO sparks privacy debate over deepfake technology

Biometric data rights – China’s next big hot topic?

Photograph: Yu Zhiming
Last weekend, Chinese social media was bombarded with videos that showed film clips in which faces of celebrities were replaced with those of ZAO app users.

‘Be a star in the movies you like with only one selfie,' proclaims the Chinese face-swapping app, which has been attracting the attention from domestic and international media. The app was released last Friday and quickly rose to number one on the iOS App Store. However, backlash followed suit the next day as users questioned some clauses in the initial user agreement.

Based on the original end-user agreement, by uploading or publishing content, users granted ZAO rights not only to modify and edit their images but also to transfer the authorisation to any of the company’s affiliates.

According to The Paper, despite ZAO’s rapid reaction to the criticism by changing the controversial clause, its rating plummeted from 4.6 to 1.9 and on Monday, WeChat blocked videos generated through ZAO from being shared.

It wasn’t until Tuesday (3 Sep) that ZAO issued an official apology stating that the company is ‘reflecting on the issue and making amendments’. Apart from changing the controversial user agreement, the company also states that it will not store any information concerning personal facial biometrics and emphasises that the images generated by ZAO are no threat to payment security, which has been a major concern from netizens – facial recognition technology is widely used in places such as train stations and shopping mall checkouts in China.

This is not the first time that deepfake technology has caused tension. According to Sixth Tone, a video went viral on Bilibili this February, in which the face of Hong Kong star Athena Chu from a 1994 TV series was swapped with younger actress Yang Mi, causing many to worry that the widespread distribution of the video was an infringement of portrait rights and that the tech could also lead to harassment of individuals. Seems when it comes to their faces, netizens do know when to say how much is too much.

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