The new Faceswap app ZAO - Deepfakes go mainstream

Chinese Deepfake App ZAO (Source: Liangziwei/Jinri Toutiao)

Chinese Deepfake App ZAO (Source: Liangziwei/Jinri Toutiao)

The hottest topic in WeChat Moments as of Friday night is a new app called “ZAO”. It all started with some friends sharing short scenes of the movie “Titanic” - all good except what was supposed to be Leonardo di Caprio looked just like my friendly neighbor. A perfectly executed face swap which is what ZAO is all about. Their Chinese slogan in the App Store goes somewhere along the lines of: “you only need one picture and you can play a role in all movies on the planet”. The rush to download the app and play with it led within hours to a breakdown of its servers: 

“Server Busy, please try again at 10.37am“ (Source: Liangziwei/Jinri Toutiao)

“Server Busy, please try again at 10.37am“ (Source: Liangziwei/Jinri Toutiao)

After downloading the app, users need to provide a phone number and a series of selfies in which they make facial expressions, blink and move their mouths, which the app uses to realistically mimic the person’s animated likeness on to movies, TV shows or other content.

The company behind the app let it be known on their Weibo account that they had spent 7 Mio RMB on fees for servers and that one third of capacity was gone within the hour and promised to introduce some use restrictions going forward. At the same time people started wondering whether this would be one of those overnight sensations that will disappear almost as quickly as they had exploded onto the scene. The app went straight to the top ranking position in the app store for free apps.


A quick background check on the company behind the app revealed the involvement of two of Momo’s (China’s largest dating app) top officers: Lei Xiaoliang, Momo co-founder and President of its gaming business and Wang Li, Momo’s COO. The two companies are actually sharing an office in Chengdu which makes many insiders believe that this is an app incubated by Momo. 

The reality is that ZAO is actually not even the first face-swapping app. A search in the App Store shows a number of similar applications have existed before. What makes people nervous is the connection to deep fakes, especially since the relevant source code has been made public already. There have not only been incidents in the West where celebrities’ faces were used to falsely show up in porn movies. China had its very own incident where actress Yang Mu was involved. 

The ZAO app has some in-built protective mechanisms such as a photo screen to prevent that faces of public figures and celebrities can be uploaded as well as adding a water sign running across all ZAO generated videos where the face of a person has been used that has not previously authorized such use case. But apart from being afraid of involuntarily taking on a role in a sex scene, what has people even more worried is the risk of facial images being abused in China’s pervasive mobile payments enabled by face scans. What if someone tries to hijack facial pictures to authorize an Alipay payment? Ant Financial, Alipay’s holding company, was quick to point out on Weibo over the weekend that such a risk doesn’t exist or is very small as Ant Financial is currently using 3D facial recognition technology that relies on hardware and software to distinguish whether a picture was derived from a photo or video. In addition, the Alibaba affiliate agrees to compensate anyone who was defrauded in such a way if that really should occur.  

In an earlier version of ZAO’s user agreement, any user effectively had to grant the app developer irrevocably the global rights to use any imagery created on the app for free. After these terms were made public by bloggers and journalists, ZAO amended its user agreement to the effect that content generated on the app will now “no longer be used for other purposes without the user’s prior consent.” It also says that if a user deletes content on ZAO, it will be wiped from ZAO’s databases.

If all of this can’t deter you from downloading the app, we wish you “Happy Face Swapping”!

Mirko Wormuth