The Federal Bureau of Investigation warned that certain Russian-made software, including the viral hit FaceApp, pose a potential counterintelligence threat and could put Americans’ private data at risk.
The FBI expressed the concerns in a letter sent to Chuck Schumer (D, N.Y.) that was released by the Senate minority leader on Monday.
The senator and Democratic National Committee in July urged the FBI and the Federal Trade Commission to investigate FaceApp for possible privacy violations due to its expansive terms of service.
FaceApp is a free mobile app that lets users upload photos of people’s faces they can alter to appear older or younger.
“Russia’s intelligence services maintain robust cyber exploitation capabilities,” the FBI said in the letter. For example, it said, the Russian Federal Security Service can remotely access all communications and servers on Russian networks without making a request to internet service providers.
A spokeswoman for the FBI declined to comment. The Russian Embassy in Washington couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.
FaceApp declined to comment on the FBI’s letter.
A man who has identified himself as FaceApp’s founder, Yaroslav Goncharov said in a statement Monday that his company doesn’t sell or share data with third parties, and that all user data collected is stored in cloud servers and not transferred to Russia.
Mr. Goncharov said the app stores the photos users upload on servers run by Amazon.com Inc. and Alphabet Inc. ’s Google, he said. The images are encrypted with the key stored on the user’s device, he said. FaceApp deletes all user-submitted images from its servers within 48 hours of them last being edited, he said.
“I strongly urge all Americans to consider deleting apps like FaceApp immediately and proceed with extreme caution when downloading apps developed in hostile foreign countries,” Sen. Schumer said Monday in a statement. “The personal data FaceApp collects from a user’s device could end up in the hands of Russian intelligence services.”
Federal law-enforcement officials have become increasingly concerned U.S. citizens may be providing sensitive personal information to some foreign social-media outlets that could be turned against the users. Those worries go beyond Russia. U.S. officials this year ordered a Chinese company to sell gay-dating app Grindr, citing concern Beijing may use the information to blackmail individuals.
More recently, several senators expressed concerns that Chinese-made social media app Tik-Tok was censoring content to appease Beijing and that the company behind it was collecting data about American users. The U.S. recently launched a national security review of the popular video app.
TikTok has said it couldn’t comment on ongoing regulator processes but added “we have no higher priority than earning the trust of users and regulators in the U.S.”
FaceApp launched in 2017. It saw a spike in usage over the summer when celebrities such as basketball star LeBron James and the music group Jonas Brothers began posting images on social media of what they might look like decades in the future. It has been downloaded more than 161 million times world-wide, with more than 89 million of those downloads occurring since July 11, according to SensorTower Inc., a mobile analytics firm.
Russian-related security issues have long been a concern for the Democratic National Committee after its emails were hacked and leaked online during the 2016 presidential campaign by Russian operatives, according to the U.S. intelligence community and the findings of former special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into the matter.
Russian officials have denied involvement in the DNC hack.
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