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All Russian-made apps are ‘potential counterintelligence threat,’ FBI says

Russia's President Vladimir Putin delivers an annual address to the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation, at Moscow's Gostiny Dvor on Feb. 20, 2019 in Moscow. The Federal Assembly of Russia consists of the State Duma of Russia and the Federation Council of Russia. (Mikhail Tereshchenko/TASS/Zuma Press/TNS)
December 04, 2019

After an investigation by the FBI, any phone application or similar technology made in Russia is going to be viewed as a possible counterintelligence threat, according to a letter released Monday.

“The FBI considers any mobile application or similar product developed in Russia, such as FaceApp, to be a potential counterintelligence threat,” the bureau wrote in a letter to Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer of New York on Nov. 25.

The FBI was responding to an inquiry by Schumer after he called for the FBI and Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to conduct an investigation of the app on July 17 for national security and privacy concerns of FaceApp, a popular face-editing app whose developer is based in Russia.

FaceApp became popular over the summer for its ability to allow users to change ages and genders in pictures. App users reveal a lot about themselves, including biometric data, said a former general counsel to the FBI, Jim Baker, now director of national security and cybersecurity at the Washington-based R Street Institute.

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People “are giving up a lot of information that could be useful to a foreign government if they want to target you or someone in the social network around you,” he said.

Based on the data Russian apps collect and the Russian government’s ability to see that data without having to notify internet service providers.

Apps collecting data is not unique to FaceApp, but the FBI noted that specific to FaceApp, “is the submission of a user’s photo for manipulation, which FaceApp uploads to cloud servers” hosted in the United States, Singapore, Ireland, and Australia.

In his July 17 letter, Schumer said this access could be a possible “national security and privacy risks for millions of U.S. citizens.”

“Russia’s intelligence services maintain robust cyber exploitation capabilities,” the FBI said.

They added that Russian authorities “can remotely access all communications and servers on Russian networks” without requests to internet providers.

The “legal mechanisms available to the Government of Russia that permit access to data within Russia’s borders,” the statement said, allow them to “obtain telephonic and online communications vie direct connection to internet service providers (ISP).”

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

The app’s developers, which created it in 2017, claim they do not store pictures in their databases for more than 48 hours, and FaceApp officials have denied the company shares or sells user data with third parties, including the Russian government.