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Russian Mobile Apps: FBI’s Warning

Any Russian mobile application should be considered a “potential counterintelligence threat,” the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) told Senate Democratic leader Charles Schumer in a recent letter.

The FBI’s letter was written in response to one written by Schumer last July that called for a federal national security and privacy review into the risks posed by FaceApp, a Russia-based, mobile app that uses artificial intelligence to alter a user’s photos to look younger or older or of a different gender. It’s used by millions of Americans and requires full and irrevocable access to user’s personal photos and data. The app uploads users’ photos to servers in the U.S., Singapore, Ireland and Australia. Most photos are removed from its servers within 48 hours after submission,” according to the FBI.

Schumer asked the FBI to figure out if U.S. citizens’ personal information is ending up in the hands of the Russian government. “In practice, providing this level of access to a user’s data could mean that any photos taken with the application could be used publicly or privately in the future without the user’s consent,” Schumer wrote. “It would be deeply troubling if the sensitive personal information of U.S. citizens was provided to a hostile foreign power actively engaged in cyber hostilities against the United States.”

Federal law enforcement officials concluded that mobile applications like FaceApp are potential security threats, based on “the data the product collects, its privacy and terms of use policies, and the legal mechanisms available to the Government of Russia that permit access to data within Russia’s borders.” Russia’s intelligence services maintain “robust cyber exploitation services,” the agency said, and can remotely access data located on Russian networks without making a request to an internet service provider.

The FBI said it is prepared to counter any “foreign influence operations” involving FaceApp against elected officials, candidates, political campaigns, and political parties.” In such cases, the agency said it would “coordinate notifications, investigate and engage the Foreign Influence Task Force, as appropriate.”

Schumer said he wants all Americans to consider deleting apps like FaceApp immediately and proceed with “extreme caution” when downloading apps developed in hostile foreign countries. The personal data FaceApp collects from a user’s device could end up in the hands of Russian intelligence services, he said.

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