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Meet Meitu, the Chinese photo-editing app now taking the world by storm

Chinese photo-editing app Meitu faces privacy concerns over data collection

Why it matters to you

Photo-editing apps have long been popular in China, but Meitu is one of the few to also gain traction overseas.

However, are privacy issues something you should be on the lookout for?

Who says a little nip and tuck needs to be painful? Thanks to technology, you’ll never have to go under the knife to get the effects of plastic surgery. Meet Meitu, the Chinese app taking the world by storm with its instant beautifying effects that will turn you into whomever you want to be — in your photographs, that is. The app, originally launched in 2008, has been popular in its homeland for nearly a decade, but it’s just now crossing international borders. With its $4.5 billion initial public offering last year, more and more users around the world are discovering the wonderfully weird world of Meitu. But with great attention comes great scrutiny, and now Meitu is facing a host of privacy concerns.

Think of the app as Photoshop for your selfies, where the end goal is making you look as drop dead gorgeous — even if that means looking a bit like an anime character — as possible. A staggering 450 million users across Asia upload and edit some 6 billion photos every month, adding different-colored backgrounds, augmented reality frames, “hyper-cute” stickers, filters, and blemish-banishing brush tools to beautify your photographs. Perhaps the most popular feature is “Beauty Retouch,” which takes away your sun spots or age lines, and also serves to enlarge your eyes.

And if more than just your face is in the frame, you can slim yourself down, curve yourself up, or even make yourself appear taller. Once you’re happy with the finished product, you can share your digital makeover on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or your social media channel of choice.

But all this beautification comes at a cost, apparently. While it’s true that most (if not all) apps collect some data on users, Meitu is asking for an awful lot. Not only does the app have access to your camera, but also to your GPS location, service provider information, Wi-Fi connection data, SIM card information, jailbroken status, and various other personal identifiers that could be used for tracking purposes. But despite this abundance of information, experts have noted that it doesn’t seem all that nefarious. Will Strafach, co-founder of the app security firm Verify.ly, told Wired that none of Meitu’s data collection is “far outside the norm.”

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Jonathan Zdziarski, an iOS security researcher and forensics expert, also took a look at Meitu, and noted, “It’s mostly par for the course junk. I didn’t see anything overtly evil, but that doesn’t mean there’s not something more serious in there. The thing [that’s noteworthy] is the number of different analytics and ad-tracking packages they’ve loaded into the app. I counted at least half a dozen different packages in there. You don’t generally need that many unless you’re selling data.”

We should also note, however, that Meitu might be collecting all this information in order to comply with Chinese law. A new edict requires app makers to identify their users and prevent them from uploading banned content, and the Chinese government has apparently been pretty strict about this.

In another development, Meitu recently unveiled a new feature called “hand-drawn selfies,” which basically allow you to superimpose your face onto one of six variations — Angelic, Blossoms, Fairytale, Petals, Mermaid, and Baroness. The result is a bit crazy, but also crazy fun, as it has allowed users to turn themselves, their friends, and yes, even various celebrities into caricatures of themselves.

So go ahead and take Meitu out for a spin. We promise we won’t judge you if you fall victim to the fascination.

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Article originally published in January 2017. Updated on 01-20-2017: Added reports of potential security and privacy issues.