FBI warns FaceApp is ‘potential counterintelligence threat’ from Russia
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FBI warns FaceApp is ‘potential counterintelligence threat’ from Russia

Responding to Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer’s request for probe of popular app, agency says Moscow’s intelligence services have ‘robust cyber exploitation capabilities’

FaceApp is displayed on an iPhone, July 17, 2019, in New York. (AP Photo/Jenny Kane)
FaceApp is displayed on an iPhone, July 17, 2019, in New York. (AP Photo/Jenny Kane)

The FBI has warned that all cellphone apps developed in Russia are a possible threat to US counterintelligence given that Russian spy services have strong abilities to exploit cyber networks.

US Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer on Monday shared a letter he received from the FBI in response to his request earlier this year for a probe into the national security and privacy risks of the chart-topping Russian-made FaceApp, which allows users to see how they will look as they age by automatically altering images they upload.

In the letter, dated November 25, the FBI’s Assistant Director of Congressional Affairs, Jill Tyson wrote that the agency “considers any mobile application or similar product developed in Russia, such as FaceApp, to be a potential counterintelligence threat.”

“Russia’s intelligence services maintain robust cyber exploitation capabilities,” she said and noted that the Russian Federal Security Service, FSB, “can remotely access all communications and servers on Russian networks” without making a request to internet service providers.

Tyson stressed that the FBI would act if it finds any evidence of foreign meddling in US politics through FaceApp and would contact the Foreign Influence Task Force, the top US agency for investigating foreign influence operations.

FaceApp has previously said that Russian authorities do not have any access to any user data, that most photos are deleted from its servers within 48 hours and that the app does not use the pictures for any other purpose.

A celebrity favorite, the app deploys artificial intelligence to modify users’ photos, adding wrinkles or subtracting years from their faces.

Schumer sounded the alarm over FaceApp’s Russian developer, calling in July for the FBI and the Federal Trade Commission to “look into the national security & privacy risks” connected to the application.

With more than 100 million users, FaceApp was launched two years ago and went viral after its latest editing tool, an aging filter, sparked a flood of celebrity selfies.

Its developers, Wireless Lab, are based in the Skolkovo high-tech hub near Moscow, often called Russia’s Silicon Valley — a fact that has stirred concern within the US Democratic Party.

The Washington Post has reported that the Democratic National Committee has warned campaigners in the primaries ahead of the 2020 presidential election to “delete the app immediately.”

The party is particularly sensitive to any possibility of surveillance involving Moscow after some Democratic officials were targeted by Russian hackers during the 2016 presidential election campaign.

Sen. Chuck Schumer, Democrat-New York, attends a ceremony on Capitol Hill, in Washington, November 19, 2019. (Michael A. McCoy/AP)

According to US intelligence chiefs Russian intelligence was behind the hacking of Democratic Party computers and communications, and attempted to electronically break into voting systems at the state and local level.

Meanwhile in a parallel operation a Russian troll farm controlled by a close associate of Russian President Vladimir Putin ran a massive social media campaign designed to bolster Donald Trump and hurt his opponent, Democrat Hillary Clinton.

Fears of cyber espionage have flared in recent years, with US authorities worried about foreign governments having access to and potentially misusing personal data belonging to millions of Americans.

In May a Chinese mobile gaming company that bought top gay dating app Grindr said it would sell it by June 2020 following pressure from US authorities.

US officials reportedly feared that people with American security clearances who use Grindr could be blackmailed if China’s government demanded user data from Beijing-based Kunlun Tech.

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