Not long ago, digitally replacing a face in a video was possible only in a movie studio. Now, thanks to a wildly spreading new app — and much to the alarm of privacy experts — it can be done in seconds in the palm of your hand. 

The Zao app, developed by Chinese social network Momo, has rocketed to the top spot in China’s free Apple app store, according to AppAnnie. At the same time, users are expressing fears over Zao’s privacy policy, under which they give up property rights to their facial images, which may be used for marketing, Reuters reported.

The program works by taking a photo uploaded by a user and then applying “deepfake” techniques to swap an actor’s face for that of the user. The results are impressive. The app is only available in China, for now.

At present, it’s capable of swapping faces onto a limited number of video clips that have been pre-selected by the developers, such as clips of The Big Bang Theory. This is because these clips will have been aggressively pre-processed by the developers to make the process of switching faces fast.

  • Zao responded to user complaints, saying on Weibo that it takes users’ concerns seriously, and adding that Zao “doesn’t store users’ bio facial recognition data,” the app raises no payment risks, and more.
  • Zao will inevitably fuel fears that deepfakes will inevitably amplify fake news and disinformation, as the technology challenge of making anyone — such as politicians — appear to be saying anything will become trivial. The first major example of this was a fake video of Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was widely shared on conservative social media.
  • The policy response to deepfakes has so far been mixed. Some publishers, such as Reddit, have banned deepfakes entirely. Others such as Facebook have received criticism for allowing them to remain on both the main Facebook service and Instagram.

Karma Takeaway: Zao is a sign of things to come. The technology to create near flawless fabricated videos is already here, and it will not be possible to put it back in the bottle. If we want to tackle fake news, the solution may not be technology, but education.