Chinese Deepfake App Zao Allows People To Face-Swap With Famous Actors In Seconds

A visitor looks at the Sony XPERIA XZ3 smartphone at the 2018 IFA consumer electronics and home appliances trade fair during the fair's press day on August 30, 2018 in Berlin, Germany.
Michele Tantussi / Getty Images

The Verge reports that the Chinese deepfake app Zao, which allows users to swap their face onto famous actors in scenes from TV shows and movies, has gone viral in China. The app was released Friday and has already reached the top of the free app charts on the Chinese iOS App Store.

“The premise of the app is pretty simple: take a selfie and put yourself into your favorite movie or soap opera (chosen from a pre-selected list of clips),” writes Jake Newby from RADII. “Cue users giving themselves starring roles in Leonardo DiCaprio’s filmography or uninvited guest appearances on Game of Thrones.”

But Zao is not without controversy ⁠— some are criticizing the app for a purported threat to user privacy.

The privacy policy is the most concerning part of Zao, which has led users to bombard the app with negative reviews. In one clause, it says that the developer receives a “free, irrevocable, permanent, transferable, and relicense-able” license to all content generated with the app, which suggests that any and all facial data is signed over to them.

In response to the criticism, developer Changsha Shenduronghe Network Technology ⁠— a subsidiary of Momo, a Chinese company that also owns a dating and live-streaming service ⁠— released a statement saying that it won’t use user photos or videos for anything other than improving the app. It has also updated the privacy policy to reflect this. The policy now pledges that all user data will be deleted from their servers once they delete the app.

“We understand the concerns about privacy,” reads a statement released by Zao’s developer, per The Guardian. “We’ve received the feedback, and will fix the issues that we didn’t take into consideration, which will take some time.”

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Ever since the 2016 United States election, which was plagued by online misinformation, worries have been rising that deepfake technology will pose yet another threat to the United States election process. Facebook’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, said back in June that the company is struggling to combat deepfake videos and said it looks to be “a completely different category” than all misinformation before it.

Per The National Review, the FBI is already expecting an increase in foreign election meddling in 2020. With the release of apps like Zao — software that is easy to obtain and access — the possibility of fake soundbites or clips spreading is already causing many to worry for the misinformation that will be used to tilt the 2020 elections.