FBI classifies FaceApp as counterintelligence threat, citing ties to Russian intelligence

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The FBI has classified FaceApp as a counterintelligence threat due to its ties to Russia, with the FBI emphasizing that it will take action if it assesses the face-editing app is involved in election interference efforts.

In a letter sent to Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) on Nov. 25 that was made public on Monday, Jill Tyson, the assistant director of the FBI’s Office of Congressional Affairs, wrote that given that the company that develops FaceApp is based in St. Petersburg, certain intelligence concerns were raised.{mosads}

“The FBI considers any mobile application or similar product developed in Russia, such as FaceApp, to be a potential counterintelligence threat, 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,” Tyson wrote.

In classifying FaceApp as a threat, Tyson pointed to the ability of the Russian Federal Security Service to “remotely access all communications and servers on Russian networks without making a request to [internet service providers].”

FaceApp involves the use of consumer data, including the uploading of a photo to manipulate. Tyson wrote that FaceApp uploads these photos to cloud servers in the United States, Singapore, Australia and New Zealand, and that the organization has previously claimed that it deletes photos from its servers within 48 hours of them being uploaded.

Due to concerns around Russian efforts to interfere in U.S. elections in 2016, Tyson emphasized that if FaceApp was found to be interfering with future U.S. elections in any way, the agency would take action.

“If the FBI assesses that elected officials, candidates, political campaigns, or political parties are targets of foreign influence operations involving FaceApp, the FBI would coordinate notifications, investigate, and engage the Foreign Influence Task Force, as appropriate,” Tyson wrote.

Tyson sent the letter in response to a separate letter sent to both the FBI and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) by Schumer in July. Schumer asked that the agencies look into potential national security and privacy concerns involved with FaceApp.

During a Senate floor speech on Monday, Schumer strongly urged Americans to delete apps like FaceApp, and emphasized that Russia might not be the only country to pose a threat to national security through apps.

“In light of the FBI’s warning, I strongly urge all Americans to consider deleting apps like FaceApp immediately and to proceed with extreme caution when downloading apps developed in foreign countries that are known adversaries,” Schumer said. “The personal data it collects from a user’s device could end up in the hands of Russian Intelligence Services. It’s simply not worth the risk.”

Schumer added that “Americans should be aware of the risks posed by certain mobile apps, particularly those developed in foreign countries that are known adversaries before they download them. The FBI didn’t name other countries but I’d certainly name not only Russia but China, Iran, and there are others.”

FaceApp did not immediately respond to The Hill’s request for comment. FaceApp CEO Yaroslav Goncharov previously told The Guardian that user data was never transferred to Russia, and was instead stored on U.S.-controlled Amazon and Google cloud servers.

Schumer is not alone in expressing security concerns around FaceApp. In July, the Democratic National Committee sent out an alert to candidates warning them and their staff to not use FaceApp due to ties with Russia. 

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