Warner urges caution when using photo editing apps

CHARLESTON — The office of the secretary of state of West Virginia Thursday issued what it called an “urgent public notice” cautioning the use of applications on social media that utilize artificial intelligence to alter photographs.

Privacy and security concerns have been raised in recent days over the popular applications on social media like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, a release from Secretary of State Mac Warner said.

Becoming extremely popular is FaceApp, developed by a Russian programmer, that alters a user’s photograph to make them look older, Warner said. The application requires users to allow the developer access to photo libraries, giving the application and its owners rights to use the photos for whichever purpose they choose, said Warner, an expert in election cyber security.

“Russia has been known for its high-profile disinformation campaigns, which often use unsuspecting people’s photographs to spread false information,” the release said.

FaceApp issued a statement on Wednesday, first to TechCrunch, saying most users use the FaceApp features without logging in, so the company doesn’t have access to data that could identify a person. The company doesn’t sell or share data with third parties, it said.

“Even though the core R&D team is located in Russia, the user data is not transferred to Russia,” the company said.

Forbes on Thursday reported FaceApp owns access to more than 150 million people’s photographs, including faces and names, Warner said. Social media users may unknowingly grant applications like FaceApp royalty-free access to every photo in their phone’s library, he said.

Warner has spent the past two years working with agencies to combat foreign influence in American elections and make people aware of the threat from Russia and others. He recently presented videos and PowerPoint presentations on foreign influence developed by his office at conferences of the National Association of Secretaries of State and the National State Election Directors.

Attributing the Mueller Report into Russia meddling in the 2016 presidential election, Russia sent operatives of its military to the United States where they spent millions of dollars on misleading and untruthful social media posts “to sow discord among our citizens.”

“One can only imagine the nefarious ways Russian operatives might misuse photos of unsuspecting Americans in the years to come,” the release from the secretary of state said. “For this reason, Secretary Warner urges all citizens to avoid these apps, or at least recognize the potential for misuse down the road.”

Among other warnings, U.S. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., Wednesday asked the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Bureau of Investigation to become involved.

“As (FBI Director Christopher Wray) himself pointed out earlier this year, Russia remains a significant counterintelligence threat,” Schumer said in a letter to the directors of the two federal agencies on Wednesday. “It would be deeply troubling if the sensitive personal information of U.S. citizens as provided to a hostile foreign power actively engaged in cyber hostilities against the United States.”

National media outlets also reported the Democratic National Committee on Wednesday recommended Democratic candidates in the 2020 presidential election to not use FaceApp. The committee was the target of Russian hackers in 2016.

The Consumer Protection Division of the West Virginia Attorney General has not received complaints over the FaceApp application. Anyone with concerns regarding identity theft can contact the division at 1-800-368-8808.

“Our office has not received any calls from consumers regarding FaceApp or similar activity; however, we caution everyone to exercise caution and discretion when deciding to share personal information,” spokesman Curtis Johnson said.

Jess Mancini can be reached at jmancini@newsandsentinel.com.