'Deepfake face swap' app ZAO is making people afraid of the future

The 'deepfake-style face swap app' ZAO has climbed to the top of Android and iPhone download charts in recent weeks. As its popularity grew, so have privacy concerns on Chinese social media, and now, beyond.

Here's how it works:

The sudden wide adoption of ZAO is an “intriguing development in a country where mass surveillance and facial recognition technology are prevalent,” writes Jake Newby at radiichina.com.

“Some social media platforms, including WeChat, have now started blocking ZAO videos,” Newby writes in an update to his story on Monday. “WeChat has done this before with popular rival short video apps.”

The app — developed by Momo, the same company behind popular Chinese dating app Tantan — became an overnight sensation after it began circulating on Friday evening. Hashtags related to the app quickly became some of the hottest on microblogging site Weibo, while the app rocketed up the iOS download charts. Chinese social media feeds quickly became filled with ZAO-produced videos from friends and contacts for many users.

The premise of the app is pretty simple: take a selfie and put yourself into your favorite movie or soap opera (chosen from a pre-selected list of clips). Cue users giving themselves starring roles in Leonardo DiCaprio’s filmography or uninvited guest appearances on Game of Thrones.

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