Not long after users flooded Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter with selfies and portraits of their elderly selves, using FaceApp, the backlash kicked in. Privacy advocates noted the app had a sweeping and deceptive user agreement (also known as a EULA), giving the company the right to upload and use the imagery pretty much however it wanted.
John Oliver brilliantly observed that we can put Mein Kampf in the EULA and people will click “AGREE” because so few bother even skimming them, much less reading the whole thing.
Would you really not install Windows or Chrome if you found something in the EULA that you disagreed with? It’s not a negotiation; If you want to use the products (and you have to use the products) you must click “I agree.” So why bother becoming familiar with the terms?
What seemingly ratcheted up the danger of FaceApp, however, was that that Wireless Lab, the company that produced it, was based in St.Petersburg, Russia.
This fact was presented over and over again as something that should be implicitly disturbing to the reader. However, none of the hair-raising assessments were punctuated with any elucidation on why it should matter that the maker of this product is based in Russia. They instead seemed to take for granted that this was an alarming bit of data in and of itself; “Something BAD is happening… information is being gathered… and that information is being sent… TO RUSSIA! OOGA BOOGA!!!”.
Now, I don’t spend a lot of time defending the nation of my birth, as it was a crummy place to grow up (to put it mildly) and from everything I know, it continues to be a crummy place to live.
But it’s one thing to hold Vladimir Putin’s regime, in general, and the FSB, in particular, to account for an astonishing amount of both national and international malfeasance and quite another to just blanket all Russian enterprise as having some nefarious ends.
Russians make all sorts of things that are, as far as I can tell, just run-of-the-mill consumer products and services. If you go on a Russian cruise or to a Russian restaurant or buy food or books or other goods manufactured in Russia, there’s no reason to assume that they are being made by agents of malice with pernicious motives.
It’s not that much of an exaggeration to say that just about every Russian citizen is an engineer of some sort. Many of them software engineers. I’ve employed dozens of Russians over the years (full disclosure, The Russian Mob is my company, and we use talent from the former USSR to provide software solutions for companies based in Europe and North America) and they’re all lovely people who, on average, are as talented (often more talented) than their counterparts from India, China, Israel, and (gasp) the U.S.
Do some Russians work for the FSB? Well, yes, the FSB does employ lots of software engineers. But the vast majority of the engineers in Russia are decent, hard-working, honorable people, many of them in their mid-20s and with reasonably sober, negative views of both their government and their lot in life.
I get that it’s sexy to point to the allegedly sweeping data collection in FaceApp and say “those pesky Russians!” but it would be good to remember that you only need to think as far as Google, Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter, Apple, Instagram, and WhatsApp to find companies that are equally unperturbed by the ethics of their ever-increasing contributions to the rise of the surveillance economy and whose practices are no less (and in Facebook’s case far more) egregious than those exhibited here by a company based in St.Petersburg who collected these photos, but as far as I can tell has no connection to the FSB and is not an organ of the Russian government.
If evidence of such connections materializes or if they decide to hand over all this info to the FSB, I’ll be the first to say that this is a very disturbing development. But at present, as far as I know, no one has made such a charge and quite to the contrary it would appear that this was all much ado about nothing.
Founder Yaroslav Goncharov told us it uses AWS and Google Cloud….
Even though the core R&D team is located in Russia, the user data is not transferred to Russia.
Right! You know who else stores stuff in the AWS and Google clouds?
Since we live in a world of neverending outrage, and since the elimination of bathwater is now deemed so urgent that all babies appear to be damned, it’s worth remembering that when everything is outrageous nothing is. And while the Russian government is guilty of more than enough actual dirty deeds to fill the news cycles, there’s no need to sweep the largely innocent and suffering populace under the bus with unjustified suspicion and innuendo.
Barring, as I mentioned, a revelation of actual malice from Wireless Lab, we should not hurl accusations at the company, much less an entire population, just because its national leaders are bad actors. They’re decent people living in excruciatingly difficult circumstances and their livelihoods are at stake.
It’s not their fault that their leader is a monster and punishing them for his sins is both counterproductive and mean.