The creator of a company which suddenly found itself 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 being used by millions of people around the world to create ‘cartoon’ 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 links to Russia, and urged caution over using apps that send your data abroad. Russian-born CEO and founder of the app company Linerock Investments Ltd, Victor Sazhin, says that sparked an instant downturn in fortunes.
He said: “Initially our new beautiful photo effect got us instantly super-popular. We became the number one app overall in the UK, US, Australia, Canada, Ireland, and many more countries. However just a few days later the tabloid post about it being a ‘Russian malware’ with literally no grounds, and certainly no evidence, became even more viral, slamming our growth and making people uninstall our app and changing their 5-star ‘obsessed with this amazing app’ reviews to 1-star ‘Everybody says it is Russian spyware’ ones.”
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’s registered offices are close to Russian Ministery of Defence near Red Square.
NewProfilePic uses advanced facial recognition software to record your face, and the app has access to other data in your phone or devices. But Victor says the data was never sent to Russia – instead only going to Amazon servers in the USA. And soon after the Mail story was reported, rumours started to spread that NewProfilePic was also infested with ‘Russian malware’ – a virus that could steal your personal information.
Victor said: “After we released our new set of effects on Friday, May 6, things started to move quickly. On Saturday one of the effects got super-viral in the UK moving the app up to number three overall on the App Store. On Sunday it was already number one there and two days later on Tuesday it got viral in the US making NewProfileApp the most downloaded app there as well.
“The situation was not easy at all for our team as our server infrastructure appeared not to be ready for such an extreme load and we had to work overnight to workaround Amazon limitations and make everything function properly. Wednesday was even harsher. After a sleepless night I’ve seen the infamous Daily Mail article about how NewProfilePic is a security risk and how ‘Russia gets your personal data’ through our app. This post was so ridiculous, I didn’t take it seriously enough. Apparently that was a mistake.”
Victor says the Russian office belongs to the legal firm that registered his company 20 years ago, while Linerock itself is registered in the British Virgin Islands.
Victor said: “Our team switched to other stuff like localizing the app to more languages, improving user experience, fighting imposters, and solving the remaining problems with server.” He said they thought the problem was over thanks to a fact-checking article which supported Linerock.
But he said another post then started to go 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. It always happens with viral apps, it is totally ridiculous, we didn’t react at all. We just ignored it.
“How did we screw up that much? Well, the thing is both situations took place before. We are a pretty established and successful company with way over 300 million app downloads worldwide. And since 2020 we have 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 was said to contain spyware. So at first Victor believed this would all blow over as that story did.
He said: “The Daily Mail’s baseless ‘Beware – Russia’ post and those funny ‘Beware – malware’ comments got mixed into a dangerous conspiracy cocktail detonated by today’s anti-Russian hysteria raised in response to the catastrophe in Ukraine. The ‘Beware of Russian Malware’ message appeared attractive enough for people to spread. It was a powerful seed planted into a way too fertile ground.
“So everybody, first in Europe and later in the US, started quoting Daily Mail articles and ‘user reports’. And while lots of people shared Snopes disproof to those claims, it just wasn’t enough. Numerous authoritative media in the US, including Newsweek, Buzzfeed and multiple TV stations were telling that the app is safe and cool, but their stories got lost in the ‘war of reposts’. The tabloids’ story won the minds of people as everybody had a friend reposting some derivative of the Daily Mail story.”
He said hackers started to use bots to post warnings in the review sections of their apps. Victor said: “Soon enough everybody knew that everybody said that ‘NewProfilePic is Russian Malware Scam, which is stealing people’s bank accounts and personal details and sending them to Russia’, which resulted in even totally reasonable people starting to delete the app just in case.”
Victor added: “The fact is that every single claim in this sentence is wrong. It is 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 operates under Common Law since its foundation in 2002. I personally love my homeland of Russia but me and my family haven’t been there for a very long time and we don’t even know when we will be able to return.
“And the information gathered, the photos a user requests to process, are sent to the US servers hosted by Amazon and Microsoft.”
He added: “This story doesn’t have an ending yet. But I decided to share it publicly to clear our name and probably start a discussion about consequences of mass hysteria, which don’t look bright.”