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China's viral face-swap app ZAO apologizes over privacy issue

Developer addresses concerns over popular app which allows users to swap their faces in video clips but whose agreement terms have raised concerns over privacy and security.

Kalvin Tam, a Beijing-based marketing guy, produced 14 Zao videos with his face picture, playing roles in various films including female roles.

The developer of face-swap app Zao, which went viral on social networks and became the most downloaded app in China’s iOS store at the weekend, apologized on Tuesday over privacy and payment security concerns. 

“We apologize for causing doubts and troubles,” Zao's operations team said on Weibo.

It promised to delete user information when accounts are deleted and to protect people’s personal data “based on national law and regulations.”

Zao lets users replace the faces of actors or actresses in movies with their own to make video clips of themselves in scenes from productions such as "Titanic," "The Game of Thrones," "The Big Bang Theory" and "Romeo and Juliet." 

The app, not available in Western markets, was developed by MoMo and uses so-called deepfake technology to map users' faces onto videos of other people.

However, there has been debate over the app's agreement terms, which some users deemed unreasonable because of privacy and safety issues.

In the United States, deepfake technology has been used to put the faces of film stars and celebrities in pornographic videos. Users are also worried about payment security because popular app Alipay uses facial recognition for payments. 

Zao said it just stores avatar photo information from users but not personal facial biometric feature information, which is required to finish payments. Therefore the app won’t bring payment security problems, according to team.

The debate around Zao shows two contrasting aspects of artificial intelligence. The technology can make life easier and full of fun but users have to contribute or “sacrifice” their personal data to train the AI.

“For Siri, it collects and stores certain information from your device to more accurately complete personalized tasks,” Apple said in a statement. Apple admits to using audio recordings and transcripts in a machine learning process to “train” Siri.

Apple was the subject of recent complaints about allowing Siri to “listen to users” without authorization.

“In this particular case, I choose to trade privacy for fun," said He Xiaomei, a Shanghai-based journalist who has read the agreement and known the terms. 

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