Russian Surveillance is Nothing New

Russian surveillance is nothing new.  Back in 1945, the Russians gave U.S. Ambassador Harriman a gift of a wall plaque that years later was revealed to be bugged. (Link here to that story.)

The desire to have current, usable intelligence is a powerful motivator.  It’s surely no surprise that power-hungry states with the means and money to do so will try whatever it takes to get what they want.

Under the surveillance banner this summer is the not very surprising news that Ecuador believes Assange had ties to Russian Intelligence and the ongoing general concerns around Russian influence via hacking on U.S. elections and god knows what else.

Also in the news this summer is FaceApp, a phone app that allows users to filter and morph a photo of their face into a decades older, future version or to change photo gender.  (Personally, not something I wanna see.)  Nonetheless, politicians in Washington are concerned that the app, which was developed by a Russian company, is being used for nefarious purposes.  FaceApp was launched in 2017 and has since gained popularity making it right now the top downloaded free app for both iOS and Android, with over 5K reviews on the Apple store.  To date, over 80 million users have used FaceApp.

Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) has called for the FBI and FTC to conduct a national security investigation – there are fears that the app can access all of a user’s photos, open their phone to surveillance and export its data.  Were any users to actually read the app’s terms and conditions, they might indeed give pause: FaceApp  is able to “use, reproduce, modify, adapt, publish, translate, create derivative works from, distribute, publicly perform and display” content and name without compensation to app user.

However, some analysis is finding that the alarm is for naught.  Security researcher Robert Baptiste has stated that FaceApp only uploads user selected photos to their servers and that photos are deleted within 48 hours.

Isn’t the salient point here that mainstream users of technology are happily oblivious?  We click on attachments, download all manner of documents, visit dozens or hundreds of sites a month on our computers and phones, are lax about maintaining strong firewalls and antivirus and malware protection, and rarely if ever change our passwords.  Most users of the internet and social media do not conduct themselves as though their privacy or security depended on it.  One might say this is due to ignorance.  Or more likely a somewhat naïve attitude that is not thinking like an adversary.

It seems that the opinion on privacy has become polarized (like many issues in our world.) On the one hand, there are many who are constantly raising the privacy flag. Those people are typically not the ones who share their personal data so frequently and willingly. On the other hand, there are many who are willingly giving up the right to privacy through apps including FaceApp. If FaceApp is collecting intelligence, it is collecting it from people who are willing to share it.

Nothing new under the sun.  Only the technology has changed.

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