Zao, a Chinese artificial intelligence-powered app that allows users to swap faces with actors and other celebrities in videos and GIF images, has sparked serious privacy concerns due to how convincing the transformation can be.
Uploaded to China’s iOS App Store last Friday, Zao became the number one downloaded app on the platform in only two days and looking at what it can do, it’s easy to see why. By using artificial intelligence, the app is able to take a simple picture of the user and superimpose it on to the face of any character in a video or GIF with truly breathtaking results. For example, one user claims it only took them under 8 seconds to swap faces with Leonardo DiCaprio and fulfil their dream of starring in blockbusters like Titanic.
But with deepfake technology already becoming controversial due to its potential to deceive millions of people by showing famous individuals saying or doing something they never actually did, Zao has sparked legitimate concerns. So far, deepfake technology wasn’t widely available, but the Chinese app does face swapping so well and is so easily available to the masses that many believe it could be a security risk.
While most experts were worried about the privacy aspect of Zao, claiming that the user agreement gave the developers global rights to the collected biometric data and the free images created via the app (provisions which have since been changed by the company), day to day users were more freaked out about the potential for fraud.
Many Chinese people use Alipay’s Smile to Pay facial-recognition system, which allows payment verification by the user looking into a camera, and many feared the realistic transformation could cheat Alipay’s algorithms. Some actually emailed Alibaba about it, and the Chinese giant had to issue a statement clarifying that no matter how realistic the face swap, there was no way a deepfake app could ever trick their system.
Zao’s developers themselves came out to reassure users that the app uses a still image for its deepfake videos and GIFs, and that face swapping based on a single photo couldn’t hope to fool advanced face recognition software.
Concerns about Zao and its advanced face-swapping magic were expressed by Chinese state-run media as well, with some asking if it could be used maliciously and even become “a threat to national security”.
“Changing-face videos is fun but the potential security risks cannot be ignored,” one Chinese newspaper wrote.
One thing is for sure, Chinese AI technology is evolving at an astonishing pace. Just a few months, we featured those mind-blowingly realistic news anchors that were actually computer-generated programs.