The creator of a company who suddenly found himself with the world’s number one app for a short time has revealed how his fortunes were reversed when people started spreading fake news about the program’s links to Russia . NewProfilPic was used by millions of people around the world to create “drawn” versions of their profile pictures for use on Facebook and other social media platforms.
But a security expert pointed out that the company behind the app has ties to Russia and urged caution about using apps that send your data overseas. Russian-born CEO and founder of app company Linerock Investments Ltd, Victor Sazhin, said it triggered an instant downturn in fortunes.
He said: “Initially, our new beautiful photo effect made us instantly super popular. We became the number one app in the UK, US, Australia, Canada, Ireland and many other countries. However, a few days later, the tabloid post about it being “Russian malware” with no basis, and certainly no proof, went even more viral, slamming our growth and forcing people to uninstall our app and change their 5 star reviews “obsessed with this amazing app” to 1 star “Everyone says it’s Russian spyware”.
A story in the Mail quoted a cybersecurity expert pointing out that sending your data to foreign countries with seemingly innocuous apps can be dangerous. Amd the Mail pointed out that Linerock headquarters are close to the Russian Ministry of Defense near Red Square.
NewProfilePic uses advanced facial recognition software to register your face, and the app has access to other data on your phone or devices. But Victor says the data was never sent to Russia, only to Amazon’s servers in the United States. And shortly after the Mail story was reported, rumors began to spread that NewProfilePic was also infested with “Russian malware” – a virus that could steal your personal information.
Victor said: “After our new set of effects were released on Friday 6th May, things started to move quickly. On Saturday, one of the effects went super viral in the UK, taking the app to the ranked third in the App Store, Sunday it was already number one there and two days later on Tuesday it went viral in the US, making NewProfileApp the most downloaded app there as well.
“The situation was not at all easy for our team as our server infrastructure didn’t seem ready for such an extreme load and we had to work all night to get around Amazon’s limitations and get everything running smoothly. Wednesday was even more difficult. After a sleepless night I saw the infamous Daily Mail article about how NewProfilePic is a security risk and how “Russia gets your personal data” through our app. This message was so ridiculous that I didn’t take it seriously enough. Apparently it was a mistake.”
Victor says the Russian office is owned by the law firm that registered his company 20 years ago, while Linerock itself is registered in the British Virgin Islands.
Victor said, “Our team moved on to other things like localizing the app into more languages, improving the user experience, fighting imposters, and fixing remaining issues with the server. ” He said they believed the issue was resolved with a fact-checking article that backed up Linerock.
But he said another post then started going viral. Victor said: “We learned that there were posts and a few user reviews claiming the app was malware stealing people’s bank accounts, sometimes illustrated with screenshots of charges made by WIX. .com This always happens with viral apps, it’s totally ridiculous, we didn’t react at all, we just ignored it.
“How did we screw up so much? Well, the thing is, both situations have happened before. We’re a fairly established and successful business with over 300 million app downloads worldwide. And as of 2020, we experienced several “viral waves” through our products.”
Two years ago, a Linerock photo app was accused in Bagladesh of being linked to the CIA and allegedly containing spyware. So, at first, Victor believed that everything would blow up like this story did.
He said: ‘The Daily Mail’s groundless ‘Beware – Russia’ message and those amusing ‘Beware – malware’ comments have mixed in a dangerous conspiracy cocktail sparked by today’s anti-Russian hysteria in response to the disaster in Ukraine. The “Beware of Russian malware” message seemed appealing enough for people to spread. It was a powerful seed planted in far too fertile soil.
“So everyone, first in Europe and later in the US, started quoting Daily Mail articles and ‘user reports’. And while a lot of people shared Snopes’ rebuttal to these claims just weren’t enough. Many authoritative media outlets in the US including Newsweek, Buzzfeed, and several TV stations were saying the app was safe and cool, but their stories got lost in the “war reposts.’ The tabloid story won people’s minds because everyone had a friend reposting a derivative of the Daily Mail story.”
He said hackers have started using bots to post warnings in the review sections of their apps. Victor said: “Soon everyone knew everyone was saying that ‘NewProfilePic is a Russian malware scam, which steals people’s bank accounts and personal details and sends them to Russia’, which led to even perfectly reasonable people to delete the app just in case.”
Victor added: “The fact is that every statement in this sentence is false. It’s not Russian.
“We are an international team with R&D companies in Ukraine, Russia and Belarus. Our main company is registered in the British Virgin Islands and has been operating under common law since its founding in 2002. Personally, I love my homeland, Russia, but me and my family haven have not been there for a very long time and we do not even know when we will be able to return.
“And the information collected, the photos that a user requests to process, are sent to US servers hosted by Amazon and Microsoft.”
He added: “This story has no end yet. But I decided to share it publicly to clear our name and probably start a discussion about the aftermath of mass hysteria, which doesn’t seem brilliant.”