Losing face in seconds: the app takes deepfakes to a new depth

Zao, a new mobile app coming out of China, can replace characters in TV or movie clips with the user’s own facial picture within seconds, raising new privacy and fraud concerns.

Developed by Momo, the company behind Tantan, China’s answer to Tinder, Zao went viral shortly after it was made available on the iOS App Store in China, Japan, India, Korea, and a couple of other Asian markets. It allows users to swap a character in a video clip for the user’s own face. The user would choose a character in a clip from the selections, often iconic Hollywood movies or popular TV programs, upload his or her own picture to be used, and let the app do the swapping in the cloud. In about eight seconds the swap is done, and the user can share the altered clip on social media.

While many are enjoying the quirkiness of the app, others have raised concerns. First there is the concern for privacy. Before a user can upload their pictures to have the app do the swapping, they have to log in with their phone number and email address, literally losing face and giving away identification to the app. More worryingly, the app, in its earlier version of terms and conditions would assume the full rights to the altered videos, therefore the rights to the users’ images.

Another concern is fraud. Facial recognition is used extensively in China, in benign and not so benign circumstances alike. In this case, when an altered video with the user’s face in it is shared on social networks, it is out of the user’s control and will be open to abuse by belligerent parties. One of such possible abuses will be payment. Alipay, the online and mobile payment system of Alibaba, has enabled retail check-out with face, that is, the customer only needs to look at the camera when leaving the retailer, and the bill will be placed on the users’ Alipay account. By adding a bit fun into the process, check-out by face not only facilitates retail transactions but also continuously enriches Alibaba’s database. (It would not be a complete surprise if this should be one reason behind the euphoria towards AI voice by Jack Ma, Alibaba’s founder.) The payment platform rushed to reassure its users that the system will not be tricked by the images on Zao, without sharing details on how.

Though Zao is not the first AI-powered deepfake application, it is one of the best worked out, therefore most unsettling ones. In another recent case, involving voice simulation and the controversial scholar Jordan Peterson, an AI-powered voice simulator enabled users to type out sentences up to 280 characters for the tool to read out loud in the distinct, uncannily accurate Jordan Peterson voice. This led Peterson to call for a wide-ranging legislation to protect the “sanctity of your voice, and your image.” He called the stealing of other people’s voice a “genuinely criminal act, regardless (perhaps) of intent.”

One can only imagine the impact of seamless image doctoring coupled with flawless voice simulation on all aspects of life, not the least on the already abated trust in news.

The good news is that the Zao developer is responding to users’ concerns. The app said on its official Weibo account (China’s answer to Twitter) that they understood the concerns about privacy and are thinking about how to fix the issues, but “please give us a little time”. The app’s T&C has been updated following the outcry. Now the app would only use the uploaded data for app improvement purposes. Once the user deletes the video from the app, it will also be deleted in the cloud.

Zao Weibo

Estonia is best digital home away from home, report says

Expats voted Estonia to the top of their digital life quality list in a new survey.

InterNations, a social network for expats, recently conducted a global survey to gauge the perception of digital lives enjoyed by those living in a foreign country. 68 countries were featured. Although most of the findings confirmed the conventional wisdom, the report also threw up a couple of surprises.

Overall, the Nordic countries ranked high, with Finland, Norway, and Denmark all in the top 5 best countries for digital life table. But topping the list is Estonia, which ranked exceptionally high on the e-government index, with 94% of all expats surveyed feeling satisfied with the availability of the country’s administrative services. Estonia also topped the table of unrestricted access to online services. The country, similar to other Baltic and Nordic countries, adopts a light-touch approach towards Internet. Following Estonia on the e-government satisfaction list is Singapore, with Norway coming second on the unrestricted access to online service table.

Unsurprisingly, South Korea, which leads the world in broadband access, also tops the league of high-speed internet at home, followed by Taiwan and Finland. Expats were also asked to rate their experience of cashless payment. The four Nordic countries took the top 4 positions, with Estonia rounding off the top 5. Finland was ranked in the first place, with 96% expats saying they are happy with the experience.

A question that is particularly relevant to expats is how easy it is to get a local mobile number. Here we see a bit surprise. Myanmar, which ranked at the bottom of the overall Digital Life table, came on top in this list, followed by New Zealand and Israel.

On the other end of the tables, China was only beaten by Myanmar to the bottom of the overall Digital Life table and sat comfortably at the bottom of “Unrestricted Access to Internet”, thanks to the all powerful Great Firewall. This is particularly pertinent for expats who would have a stronger need for the global social networks more than the local residents, to communicate with their home countries. 83% of all expats were unsatisfied with their access to social networks from China, followed in the second from bottom by Saudi Arabia, where 46% said they were unsatisfied.

The ranking may not be a big surprise, but the margin between the bottom two countries may be. The only table that China was not in the bottom 10 was the one on cashless payment. But, maybe surprisingly, with all the fanfare about the contactless payment experience enabled by companies like Alibaba and Tencent, expats living in China did not manage to take the country to the top 10 table either.

Best and worst countries for Digital Life

Payments challenger Adyen post strong growth following June IPO

In its first earnings release since going public in June, payments firm Adyen is proving it can live up to the hype.

After pricing its shares at €240 each ahead of the launch, it opened for trading on June 13 on Amsterdam’s Euronext exchange at €400 a share. With such a leap, a lot would have been expected from the firm, and it certainly delivered.

For the first six months of 2018, Adyen generated €156 million in total revenue, up 67.3% year-on-year, processing more than €70 billion of transactions, and collecting €48.2 million in net income up 74.6% year-on-year. Investors will certainly be pleased with growth at the company which counts the likes of Uber, Spotify and Cathay Pacific as customers.

Europe is still the major earner for the company, accounting for more than half of the processed transactions and roughly 65% of net revenue, though growth in other regions was incredibly healthy. Asia Pacific was a significant boost for the business, 147.5%, though the North American region was also incredibly positive, 142.9%.

“In the first half of the year we saw a continuation of the transformation of commerce, leading to an increased merchant focus on accepting payments across channels and geographies,” the firm said in a letter to shareholders. “This trend, coupled with changing shopper behaviour, the rise of mobile payment methods, and the increasing pressure on retailers’ operations, highlighted the benefits of our single platform, and consequently driven significant growth in the first half of 2018.”

The success has been attributed not only to doing what it does traditionally very well, but also branching out into new verticals such as hospitality, restaurant chains and supermarkets. While these might be different environments, all are experiencing the same increase in demand for mobile payment from customers.

Another key aspect of growth here seems to be the single platform. Many businesses around the world will use different payment solutions dependent on the environment, some of which will be legacy systems. The complications come with marrying the data to customers across the different platforms when trying to generate some sort of business insight from the data. A single platform, encompassing both online and offline transactions, allows the formation of data sets which can be used to inform future business decisions.

“Through our single platform, we provide a holistic view of payments, regardless of sales channel, delivering unique shopper insights while combating fraud and improving payment authorization rates,” the firm states.

While it all looks positive right now, another statistic which will keep investors happy is the recruitment efforts. Over the first six months, staff head count went up almost 40%, with 47.3% of these recruits taking up tech roles. While bolstering the sales team is certainly a positive move, such a focus on continuing the development of the platform will certainly add to the generated momentum.

Is mobile payment going too far when cash has become unacceptable?

When mobile payment with smartphones has become the means of choice at retail outlets, the central bank of China needed to remind businesses they should not reject cash payment.

Once upon a time, people said “cash is king”. Not anymore.

In most retail outlets in China, mobile payment with smartphone apps WeChat Pay (of Tencent) and Alipay (of Alibaba) has become the de facto option. Customers with credit or debit cards only, including the cards on UnionPay (China’s clearing platform), are sometimes in bad luck. It turns out even cash payment may not go all the way, which prompted the central bank, People’s Bank of China, to issue a warning notice to the retailers that rejecting cash is against the law.

This fast and massive move towards mobile apps based payment dwarves the slow uptake of NFC based contactless payment championed by the technology companies. This is despite the tech heavy weights Apple and Google having been supporting NFC payment since 2014. The enthusiasm in which consumers and businesses embrace it, even with the clout of Apple and Google thrown behind it, has been underwhelming.

According to the research firm Berg Insight, the total number of NFC enabled POS terminals grew by almost 100% in 2017 to reach 54.5 million, most actively in North America and Western Europe. Only about 30 million of the terminals have been activated.

Apple has refused to disclose user numbers or transaction values related to Apple Pay, although different research has put the number of users who could pay with Apple Pay and who actually did it at about 3%. The uptake of Android Pay is no better. The comparable adoption rate is estimated at about 1%.

It is safe to say Apple CEO Tim Cook’s ambition to replace wallets with Apple Pay has not gone too smoothly. Mr. Cook himself was reported to have been rejected to pay for his coffee with Apple Pay by a barista, reported The Information.

In contrast, WeChat Pay and Alipay did not only handle over 90% of China’s $16 trillion mobile payment transactions in 2017, they are also actively expanding overseas. An agreement was signed last week with the Kenya based Equity Bank to bring the services to eastern Africa including Uganda, Tanzania, Democratic Republic of the Congo, South Sudan, and Rwanda, in addition to Kenya. With a smartphone penetration level much lower than in China, we do not believe retailers in Africa will rush to refuse cash payment though.