A popular Chinese AI application sparks concerns related to privacy
World Insight with Tian Wei

A Chinese artificial intelligence (AI) mobile application, called ZAO, has gone viral after its debut last week, rapidly topping Apple's App Store in the category of entertainment in China. Based on its face recognition technology, it enables users to replace the faces of celebrities with their own in movies or TV series. They can choose from a pool of video clips and upload a photo of their faces. Despite its popularity and novelty, many are concerned about their personal information, photos, and footage being transferred and used elsewhere without their consent.

Fair to say, in the age of social media and information technology, it's never easy to prevent personal information from leaking to the public. However, the biggest controversy over this app lies in its terms and conditions which are quite unfair. First, they give the app a permanent and irreversible right to access and transfer the user's information for free. Furthermore, this right also applies to user profiles, images, and content. Third, it allows other platforms and ZAO's parent companies to re-edit and re-use the existing content.

Joanne Cheng, an intercultural film critic and filmmaker, shares her view on how AI, in this case, is a double-edged sword. "The image being used here is a merging of existing actors and actresses with a new image. It's deeply dangerous for the infringement of copyright. The danger facing the entertainment industry is greater than the egotistic kind of entertainment. But the issue goes far beyond the entertainment or the film industry. It's mainly humanity at war with AI technology. In this case, to me, it's very alarming."

According to Gai Keke, an associate professor at School of Computer Science and Technology in Beijing Institute of Technology, with the rapid development of science and technology, privacy protection is becoming increasingly vital and urgent, which is also the top concern in this case. He said we have a lot of good technology. But the key is how we would apply those kinds of technology. Users are the most vulnerable part, because they can't control technology, legal work, or related policies. Therefore, they are the ones sacrificing their personal data. That is the issue here.

"I think there is an even bigger issue than privacy. Privacy is the fundamental issue. In ancient China, feet used to be the ID. Now, in the 21st century, face is your ID. The bigger issue here is what is entertainment? If entertainment is given or enjoyed at expense of ones own security or the infringement of others, that's not entertainment. Society needs to be so alert of the bottom line. The morality is decreasing. There is a very fine balance we need to find within this chaos. I'm afraid the chaos will be even more massive. "said Cheng.

Earlier this week, China's Ministry of Industry and Information Technology asked the company about user issues and required it should be regulated. Privacy concerns over apps are not new. Social media giants like Facebook have also drawn criticism before.

On the other hand, researchers of information and computer science are dedicated to the protection of personal information, as Gai supplements. "From the perspective of technology, I think we already have a number of approaches. But none of them are perfect. Actually, we are making a lot of effort. Hopefully in a few years, they are on ground application." said Gai.

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