Deepfake app lets users star in their favorite TV shows and movies, but there’s a catch


A Chinese company called Momo recently released a deepfake app called Zao. It lets iPhone users swap their face with those of famous actors, as Futurism reports. For instance, one user plugged themselves into clips of “Titanic” as Leonardo Dicaprio. Another became Jon Snow in “Game of Thrones.” Naturally, the app went viral and topped the free chart in China’s app. But as with all things deepfake, there’s a dark side.

When the app first launched on August 30, anyone who used it basically granted Momo carte blanche to use their image however the company wanted. This raised a number of eyebrows from privacy experts.

The Catch

As Bloomberg reports, an earlier user agreement for Zao gave its developer “free, irrevocable, permanent, transferable, and relicense-able” rights to users’ likenesses. This made the excitement of becoming Leonardo DiCaprio short-lived for some. After the agreement came to light, Zao saw a cascade of negative reviews and, according to Bloomberg, now has just 1.9 stars out of five.

Zao has since updated the agreement. The app now claims that it won’t use headshots or other uploaded content except to make the app better. Furthermore, if users erase content, Zao says that it will also erase that data from its servers.

“We understand the concern about privacy. We’ve received the feedback, and will fix the issues that we didn’t take into consideration, which will need a bit of time,” a statement posted to Zao’s account on the social media platform Weibo said.

Worldwide Controversy

The Chinese government, like most governments, doesn’t have the best track record of protecting its citizens’ privacy. Still, the China E-Commerce Research Center said in a statement that the app “violates certain laws and standards set by the nation and the industry.” This was the view of Wang Zheng of the Taihang Law Firm. All of this comes with the backdrop of the Chinese government using facial recognition technology, which controversially goes hand-in-hand with deepfakes, to identify protesters in Hong Kong.

Other countries have also had their fair share of trouble and concern over deepfake and facial recognition technology. A U.K. man recently opened a landmark case against the British government over the use of facial recognition by law enforcement. Moreover, a recent report from London’s own Metropolitan Police found that 96 percent of crime-stopping facial recognition is inaccurate.

Naturally, the U.S. isn’t immune either. San Francisco has passed anti-facial recognition laws. In addition, Apple, IBM, and Amazon have all been in hot water over the controversial tech. Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders plans to enact an outright ban of facial recognition tech in America if elected. When it comes to deepfakes, Congress is also concerned over how it could affect the 2020 election. The House Intelligence Committee has held a hearing on the matter.

So, while transforming into your favorite actor might be cool, think about where those pictures might be going and what they might be used for.