On Russians & Their Apps

The FaceApp controversy took on a feverish pitch over its Russian roots. I have Opinions.

At some point during the FaceApp alarm, someone pointed out the app was developed by Russians. A Red Scare ensued, which I found equal parts funny, frightening, and unfair. Journalists freaked out. US senators freaked out. One journalist incorrectly claimed I was “one of the developers who worked with the Russian firm,” which was picked up and regurgitated by other articles. I admit I freaked out a little when I saw everyone else freaking out.

So let me address a few things.

First, I absolutely did not in any way point out FaceApp’s Russian roots and I certainly didn’t state or imply that we should be scared because Russians. That’s absurd.

Second, I’m just some random guy who is a developer, yes, but was in no way involved with FaceApp’s creation or creators. I think what happened was the journalist saw “developer” and “app” and made some assumptions neither she nor her editor checked. Does that count as irony, considering the spotlight I’m currently heat-stroking under was started by my own unfounded assumption. I’m not saying I don’t deserve to squirm for that, but these are journalists. Supposed professionals whose job it is to research and report the truth. If you think about it, though, why would I work with a firm to build something to which I clearly strongly objected, then use it, then bitch about it on Twitter? Not only would that make me a dick, but would damage my chances of ever working with another firm on an app that sends any data anywhere. Critical thinking, it seems, doesn’t come naturally in the face of getting a scoop. At least the first such misstatement of my Russian associations has since been corrected (without a formal retraction, acknowledgement, or apology) and believe me, I’m pressuring anyone else I find perpetuating that fabrication to retract it.

Third, I like Russians. Full disclosure: I have “worked with” Russians during the course of my employment as a contractor for a US government contract. Said Russians were / are federal employees and contractors working to support Uncle Sam’s health research community. I disagree strongly with their country’s leadership, sure. Some Russians are awesome, good-hearted people and some are puerile assholes, same as in any society, yes. Overall, I like their outlook on life and on people who take themselves too seriously. I think it’s incredibly unfair (and more than a little backward) to assume the worst of a handful of developers just because they’re Russian. Sadly, blind bigotry seems to be growing in popularity here in the “good ol’ U-S-of-A”. That doesn’t mean I have to tolerate it and I sure as hell won’t let a careless journalist make it seem as though I’m perpetuating such an idiotic take on the whole FaceApp thing.

Fourth, I still think FaceApp is a bit fishy. Maybe these developers intend to scrape more info than they tell users and maybe they just did some of the things they did out of convenience (more on that in a moment). I don’t know, but whatever the truth is, I don’t blame it on their being Russian.

Finally, it’s possible FaceApp’s developers chose to ask for full Photos access to make it easier to display available images right on the main “view” of the application instead of forcing the extra steps of invoking the photo picker, choosing a photo, then confirming the choice. If so, it’s still weird to me that it takes so long for it to crunch through the photos at the rate of 4 or so per second (it should be instantaneous) on an iPhone X’s beefy hardware. I also wonder if Facebook’s integration suite is actually to blame for FaceApp contacting Facebook’s servers to register a unique ID and the app’s ID, but I wouldn’t know because I’ve never used Facebook’s integration library. Their terms of use policy is the most egregious, though. It’s creepily worded, but not so different to those of other social media platforms and apps who think they have a right to do anything they please with your likeness just for looking at them. I still think these particular developers are being shady because there is profit in demographic data. Big profit.

So still: be careful with apps like these. Nothing is free.

Josh