Privacy Update – Russia’s FindFace and Google’s Allo

by Mike on July 5, 2016

in News

Social media is creepy enough when you think about all the people who can review your profile, monitor your activities and track your movements. But it has just gotten worse with the launch this year of two apps that take personal data analysis to the next level. There’s a fairly new app in Russia called FindFace that scans photos and matches them to profiles on the most popular Russian social media platform VK, formerly known as VKontakte. The algorithm used for this app signals the dawn of a new era in social apps that spells disaster for privacy. Google just launched their smart messaging app called Allo, which has its own version of Siri that listens to everything and sends it back to Google. Both of these apps pose serious privacy concerns for their users.

FindFace Identity Matching

FindFace was launched in March with a new algorithm that was designed to put photos and social media profiles together. The apps takes a photo and scans VK profiles to find matches. Anyone with the app can take a photo of anyone that they like, without their permission, and pretty much stalk them digitally. It takes only seconds for the search to run, and the results are 70% accurate.

This is nowhere near military grade technology, but this is creepy enough considering that the app is free to use. Plus, since the app has already been downloaded by about half a million people, it has no doubt collected a lot of data. We are assuming that the app can learn, and so there will be a lot of pre-sorted data to access if the government or the military wanted to use it. Users have already conducted over 3 million searches using FindFace. In an interview with the Guardian, app creator Alexander Kabakov said that the app was designed to be at the forefront of a technology revolution for both retail marketing and law enforcement.

From the advertising and the photos on the app, it really seems to be a tool designed to allow men to stalk and harass women. On top of just being able to just take a picture of any beautiful stranger and find her on the VK social network, it has actually already been used to violate the privacy of Russian actresses. A month after it was launched, users of Dvach, the Russian imageboard version of 2chan, used it to find actresses who had made pornographic films. These users then published shots of the actresses’ Vkontakte profiles with the big reveal. This wasn’t enough for them, however, since they proceeded to send the news to the actresses’ friends and family, which they could easily find from the social platform. This user mob did the same thing to registered users of the Intimcity, a known prostitution website. This is a big level-up for online harassment, and Kabakov and co-founder Artem Kukharenko seem to hail it as a cool and useful feature of the app.

The founders even describe the face-finding scenario, saying users can use the app to find and friend anyone they see on the street that they like. The company behind FindFace, N-Tech.lab, has also confirmed that the app was specially made with the social profile search feature to facilitate online dating by allowing interested parties to research their targets online before making friends. This gets loads creepier really quickly when you realize that a search can bring up several people who look similar to the person one is searching for. This is a great tool for serial rapists and murderers. It is also a great tool for exes who have trouble letting go, or sad people with unhealthy movie star crushes. Kabakov, however, does not find this creepy in the least, but markets it as a feature.

Allo, Data Mining?

Allo is the new Google app that launched on May 18. It has very similar features to Google Now, but incorporated into a smart messaging app. Allo makes users’ conversations more expressive and makes topics easier to discuss by adding information. The Google Assistant in Allo is the Apple Siri and Amazon Echo counterpart. It is a learning tool that provides virtual assistance by giving answers to questions. The Allo component has an upgraded version that can understand context, which of course means that it relies on data gathering.

There is an inherent contradiction to this app because the technology has glaring privacy issues even as the app has been applauded for providing better user privacy. Allo will listen and read all conversations, sending that data back to Google so that it can be analyzed to return appropriate responses. The Smart Reply component that is built in to Allo is similar to the Google’s Inbox feature that suggests automatic responses. The more you use Allo, the more like you your replies will become. This is because it creates a super detailed profile of each user. The convenience is even more amazing when you see how the app can come up with appropriate replies to photo messages. We wonder how the app can be a step forward for privacy when Google is built on monetizing user data. We can’t help but worry about how all that data is going to be used by the company outside of Allo messaging.

Allo’s virtual assistant component isn’t limited to quick replies, however. The app can hold your calendar data and remind you what flight you will be taking and what hotel you will stayed at last time, plus show you all the pictures taken while you were in that city. How can this possibly be a private app? Well, Google uses the protocol for Signal private messaging to give Allo end-to-end encryption. But WhatsApp, which uses the same protocol, has been found to still track user metadata despite the claim of strong encryption. The Signal protocol is in itself very secure, but there are obviously issues in its application that can create dangerous loopholes. Plus, this Incognito mode feature is not on by default on the app, and Google makes it hard for people to avail of the security feature by requiring that they turn it on for each conversation. At least WhatsApp is encrypted by default, even if they do have their glitches. Allo’s, like WhatsApp’s, source code is moreover closed, and it retains user metadata. Google obviously does not want to encourage real privacy because this would lock them out from all that data that is their bread and butter.

Goodbye Privacy

FindFace is just the beginning of an algorithm that can be applied to a lot of different other uses, including the helping hand for law enforcement and retail marketers that Kabakov and Kukharenko envisioned. This makes CCTV monitoring and browser tracking almost obsolete in a very up-close and personal way. Allo’s Google Assistant is nothing new, but it is a sneaky attempt to trick people into trusting its security. It has the ability to encrypt communications, but on an opt-in only status, which defeats the whole convenience principle. Google knows that most people won’t go through the trouble of enabling encryption for every conversation when their goal is to not have to give even quick replies.

Staying safe from these new threats means securing your social media profile privacy wherever possible and avoiding silent listeners like Google Assistant. You will also need to be very wary of who is sending you friend requests, and who might be trying to get in touch with your friends and family, especially children. You might even want to consider getting off popular social media altogether if you are not up to the task of being vigilant about monitoring your privacy and security.

VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0.0/10 (0 votes cast)
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0 (from 0 votes)

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: