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On August 30th, 2019, ZAO was released in China. The quickly went viral, reaching the top of the free charts of China's iOS App Store charts within several days of its launch.
The app was developed by Momo, Inc., who are known for releasing China's most popular dating application as well as live-streaming services.
The following day, Twitter user @AllanXia tweeted about the app and shared a video of its capabilities. They wrote, "In case you haven't heard, #ZAO is a Chinese app which completely blew up since Friday. Best application of 'Deepfake'-style AI facial replacement I've ever seen. Here's an example of me as DiCaprio (generated in under 8 secs from that one photo in the thumbnail)."
In case you haven't heard, #ZAO is a Chinese app which completely blew up since Friday. Best application of 'Deepfake'-style AI facial replacement I've ever seen.
Here's an example of me as DiCaprio (generated in under 8 secs from that one photo in the thumbnail) 🤯 pic.twitter.com/1RpnJJ3wgT
— Allan Xia (@AllanXia) September 1, 2019
ZAO allows user to select from a library of videos to insert their faces into. The video library comes with the app; users cannot upload their own videos. According to Bloomberg, "Users of the app upload a photo of themselves to drop their likeness into popular scenes from hundreds of movies or TV shows."
The app also allows users to replace the images found in photographs and GIFs with their own uploaded image in seconds, which is significantly faster than other forms of deepfake technology. Allan Xia theorizes that this is likely done algorithmically as the app selects the best videos for this type of technology. They write, "It’s clear that #ZAO isn’t really going for 'accuracy' per se, but rather a 'subjective' good looking result. Similar to a beauty cam, it retains facial structure of the original actors, so the cherry picked results more or less always looks good and encourages users to share."
Shortly after ZAO's release, the popular messaging application WeChat banned sharing of Zao. Users could still share videos that they created; however, according to TechCrunch, "if they try to download the app or send an invite link to another WeChat user, a message is displayed that says 'this web page has been reported multiple times and contains security risks. To maintain a safe online environment, access to this page has been blocked.'" These concerns were based on the application's terms of service, which stated the app had "completely free, irrevocable, perpetual, transferable, and re-licensable rights" over user-generated content.
These terms raised concerns among user and advocacy groups about the possibility of using people's faces for advertising and marketing. Chinese culture site RADII wrote, "One clause in particular is causing consternation as it appears to give the app’s developers the global rights to use any imagery created on the app for free. Once a user has opted in, there doesn’t seem to be the right to revoke the agreement."
On September 1st, the verified Zao account on the social network Weibo shared the following message: "We completely understand everybody’s concerns about the privacy issue. We are aware of the issue and we are thinking about how to fix the problems, we need a little time."
TechCrunch noted that following the release of the statement ZAO's "terms and conditions now say user-generated content will only be used by the company to improve the app and that all deleted content will be removed from its servers."
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