There are thousands of distortion filters available on major social platforms, with names like La Belle, Natural Beauty, and Boss Babe. Even the goofy Big Mouth on Snapchat, one of social media’s most popular filters, is made with distortion effects.
In October 2019, Facebook banned distortion effects because of “public debate about potential negative impact.” Awareness of body dysmorphia was rising, and a filter called FixMe, which allowed users to mark up their faces as a cosmetic surgeon might, had sparked a surge of criticism for encouraging plastic surgery. But in August 2020, the effects were re-released with a new policy banning filters that explicitly promoted surgery. Effects that resize facial features, however, are still allowed. (When asked about the decision, a spokesperson directed me to Facebook’s press release from that time.)
When the effects were re-released, Rocha decided to take a stand and began posting condemnations of body shaming online. She committed to stop using deformation effects herself unless they are clearly humorous or dramatic rather than beautifying and says she didn’t want to “be responsible” for the harmful effects some filters were having on women: some, she says, have looked into getting plastic surgery that makes them look like their filtered self.
“I wish I was wearing a filter right now”
Krista Crotty is a clinical education specialist at the Emily Program, a leading center on eating disorders and mental health based in St. Paul, Minnesota. Much of her job over the past five years has focused on educating patients about how to consume media in a healthier way. She says that when patients present themselves differently online and in person, she sees an increase in anxiety. “People are putting up information about themselves—whether it’s size, shape, weight, whatever—that isn’t anything like what they actually look like,” she says. “In between that authentic self and digital self lives a lot of anxiety, because it’s not who you really are. You don’t look like the photos that have been filtered.”
For young people, who are still working out who they are, navigating between a digital and authentic self can be particularly complicated, and it’s not clear what the long-term consequences will be.
“Identity online is kind of like an artifact, almost,” says Claire Pescott, the researcher from the University of South Wales. “It’s a kind of projected image of yourself.”
Pescott’s observations of children have led her to conclude that filters can have a positive impact on them. “They can kind of try out different personas,” she explains. “They have these ‘of the moment’ identities that they could change, and they can evolve with different groups.”
But she doubts that all young people are able to understand how filters affect their sense of self. And she’s concerned about the way social media platforms grant immediate validation and feedback in the form of likes and comments. Young girls, she says, have particular difficulty differentiating between filtered photos and ordinary ones.
Pescott’s research also revealed that while children are now often taught about online behavior, they receive “very little education” about filters. Their safety training “was linked to overt physical dangers of social media, not the emotional, more nuanced side of social media,” she says, “which I think is more dangerous.”
Bailenson expects that we can learn about some of these emotional unknowns from established VR research. In virtual environments, people’s behavior changes with the physical characteristics of their avatar, a phenomenon called the Proteus effect. Bailenson found, for example, that people who had taller avatars were more likely to behave confidently than those with shorter avatars. “We know that visual representations of the self, when used in a meaningful way during social interactions, do change our attitudes and behaviors,” he says.
But sometimes those actions can play on stereotypes. A well-known study from 1988 found that athletes who wore black uniforms were more aggressive and violent while playing sports than those wearing white uniforms. And this translates to the digital world: one recent study showed that video game players who used avatars of the opposite sex actually behaved in a way that was gender stereotypical.
Bailenson says we should expect to see similar behavior on social media as people adopt masks based on filtered versions of their own faces, rather than entirely different characters. “The world of filtered video, in my opinion—and we haven’t tested this yet—is going to behave very similarly to the world of filtered avatars,” he says.
Considering the power and pervasiveness of filters, there is very little hard research about their impact—and even fewer guardrails around their use.
I asked Bailenson, who is the father of two young girls, how he thinks about his daughters’ use of AR filters. “It’s a real tough one,” he says, “because it goes against everything that we’re taught in all of our basic cartoons, which is ‘Be yourself.’”
Bailenson also says that playful use is different from real-time, constant augmentation of ourselves, and understanding what these different contexts mean for kids is important.
What few regulations and restrictions there are on filter use rely on companies to police themselves. Facebook’s filters, for example, have to go through an approval process that, according to the spokesperson, uses “a combination of human and automated systems to review effects as they are submitted for publishing.” They are reviewed for certain issues, such as hate speech or nudity, and users are also able to report filters, which then get manually reviewed.
The company says it consults regularly with expert groups, such as the National Eating Disorders Association and the JED Foundation, a mental-health nonprofit.
“We know people may feel pressure to look a certain way on social media, and we’re taking steps to address this across Instagram and Facebook,” said a statement from Instagram. “We know effects can play a role, so we ban ones that clearly promote eating disorders or that encourage potentially dangerous cosmetic surgery procedures… And we’re working on more products to help reduce the pressure people may feel on our platforms, like the option to hide like counts.”
Facebook and Snapchat also label filtered photos to show that they’ve been transformed—but it’s easy to get around the labels by simply applying the edits outside of the apps, or by downloading and reuploading a filtered photo.
Labeling might be important, but Pescott says she doesn’t think it will dramatically improve an unhealthy beauty culture online.
“I don’t know whether it would make a huge amount of difference, because I think it’s the fact we’re seeing it, even though we know it’s not real. We still have that aspiration to look that way,” she says. Instead, she believes that the images children are exposed to should be more diverse, more authentic, and less filtered.
There’s another concern, too, especially since the majority of users are very young: the amount of biometric data that TikTok, Snapchat and Facebook have collected through these filters. Though both Facebook and Snapchat say they do not use filter technology to collect personally identifiable data, a review of their privacy policies shows that they do indeed have the right to store data from the photographs and videos on the platforms. Snapchat’s policy says that snaps and chats are deleted from its servers once the message is opened or expires, but stories are stored longer. Instagram stores photo and video data as long as it wants or until the account is deleted; Instagram also collects data on what users see through its camera.
Meanwhile, these companies continue to concentrate on AR. In a speech made to investors in February 2021, Snapchat co-founder Evan Spiegel said “our camera is already capable of extraordinary things. But it is augmented reality that’s driving our future”, and the company is “doubling down” on augmented reality in 2021, calling the technology “a utility”.
And while both Facebook and Snapchat say that the facial detection systems behind filters don’t connect back to the identity of users, it’s worth remembering that Facebook’s smart photo tagging feature—which looks at your pictures and tries to identify people who might be in them—was one of the earliest large-scale commercial uses of facial recognition. And TikTok recently settled for $92 million in a lawsuit that alleged the company was misusing facial recognition for ad targeting. A spokesperson from Snapchat said “Snap’s Lens product does not collect any identifiable information about a user and we can’t use it to tie back to, or identify, individuals.”
And Facebook in particular sees facial recognition as part of it’s AR strategy. In a January 2021 blog post titled “No Looking Back,” Andrew Bosworth, the head of Facebook Reality Labs, wrote: “It’s early days, but we’re intent on giving creators more to do in AR and with greater capabilities.” The company’s planned release of AR glasses is highly anticipated, and it has already teased the possible use of facial recognition as part of the product.
In light of all the effort it takes to navigate this complex world, Sophia and Veronica say they just wish they were better educated about beauty filters. Besides their parents, no one ever helped them make sense of it all. “You shouldn’t have to get a specific college degree to figure out that something could be unhealthy for you,” Veronica says.
NASA has flown its Ingenuity drone helicopter on Mars for the first time
The news: NASA has flown an aircraft on another planet for the first time. On Monday, April 19, Ingenuity, a 1.8-kilogram drone helicopter, took off from the surface of Mars, flew up about three meters, then swiveled and hovered for 40 seconds. The historic moment was livestreamed on YouTube, and Ingenuity captured the photo above with one of its two cameras. “We can now say that human beings have flown a rotorcraft on another planet,” said MiMi Aung, the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, at a press conference. “We, together, flew at Mars, and we, together, now have our Wright brothers moment,” she added, referring to the first powered airplane flight on Earth in 1903.
In fact, Ingenuity carries a tribute to that famous flight: a postage-stamp-size piece of material from the Wright brothers’ plane tucked beneath its solar panel. (The Apollo crew also took a splinter of wood from the Wright Flyer, as it was named, to the moon in 1969.)
The details: The flight was a significant technical challenge, thanks to Mars’s bone-chilling temperatures (nights can drop down to -130 °F/-90 °C) and its incredibly thin atmosphere—just 1% the density of Earth’s. That meant Ingenuity had to be light, with rotor blades that were bigger and faster than would be needed to achieve liftoff on Earth (although the gravity on Mars, which is only about one-third of Earth’s, worked in its favor). The flight had originally been scheduled to take place on April 11 but was delayed by software issues.
Why it’s significant: Beyond being a significant milestone for Mars exploration, the flight will also pave the way for engineers to think about new ways to explore other planets. Future drone helicopters could help rovers or even astronauts by scoping out locations, exploring inaccessible areas, and capturing images. Ingenuity will also help inform the design of Dragonfly, a car-size drone that NASA is planning to send to Saturn’s moon Titan in 2027.
What’s next: In the next few weeks, Ingenuity will conduct four more flights, each lasting up to 90 seconds. Each one is designed to further push the limits of Ingenuity’s capabilities. Ingenuity is only designed to last for 30 Martian days, and is expected to stop functioning around May 4. Its final resting place will be in the Jezero Crater as NASA moves on to the main focus of its mission: getting the Perseverance rover to study Mars for evidence of life.
The $1 billion Russian cyber company that the US says hacks for Moscow
The public side of Positive is like many cybersecurity companies: staff look at high-tech security, publish research on new threats, and even have cutesy office signs that read “stay positive!” hanging above their desks. The company is open about some of its links to the Russian government, and boasts an 18-year track record of defensive cybersecurity expertise including a two-decade relationship with the Russian Ministry of Defense. But according to previously unreported US intelligence assessments, it also develops and sells weaponized software exploits to the Russian government.
One area that’s stood out is the firm’s work on SS7, a technology that’s critical to global telephone networks. In a public demonstration for Forbes, Positive showed how it can bypass encryption by exploiting weaknesses in SS7. Privately, the US has concluded that Positive did not just discover and publicize flaws in the system, but also developed offensive hacking capabilities to exploit security holes that were then used by Russian intelligence in cyber campaigns.
Much of what Positive does for the Russian government’s hacking operations is similar to what American security contractors do for United States agencies. But there are major differences. One former American intelligence official, who requested anonymity because they are not authorized to discuss classified material, described the relationship between companies like Positive and their Russian intelligence counterparts as “complex” and even “abusive.” The pay is relatively low, the demands are one-sided, the power dynamic is skewed, and the implicit threat for non-cooperation can loom large.
Tight working relationship
American intelligence agencies have long concluded that Positive also runs actual hacking operations itself, with a large team allowed to run its own cyber campaigns as long as they are in Russia’s national interest. Such practices are illegal in the western world: American private military contractors are under direct and daily management of the agency they’re working for during cyber contracts.
Former US officials say there is a tight working relationship with the Russian intelligence agency FSB that includes exploit discovery, malware development, and even reverse engineering of cyber capabilities used by Western nations like the United States against Russia itself.
The company’s marquee annual event, Positive Hack Days, was described in recent US sanctions as “recruiting events for the FSB and GRU.” The event has long been famous for being frequented by Russian agents.
NSA director of cybersecurity Rob Joyce said the companies being sanctioned “provide a range of services to the SVR, from providing the expertise to developing tools, supplying infrastructure and even, sometimes, operationally supporting activities,” Politico reported.
One day after the sanctions announcement, Positive issued a statement denying “the groundless accusations” from the US. It pointed out that there is “no evidence” of wrongdoing and said it provides all vulnerabilities to software vendors “without exception.”
Tit for tat
Thursday’s announcement is not the first time that Russian security companies have come under scrutiny.
The biggest Russian cybersecurity company, Kaspersky, has been under fire for years over its relationships with the Russian government—eventually being banned from US government networks. Kaspersky has always denied a special relationship with the Russian government.
But one factor that sets Kaspersky apart from Positive, at least in the eyes of American intelligence officials, is that Kaspersky sells antivirus software to western companies and governments. There are few better intelligence collection tools than an antivirus, software which is purposely designed to see everything happening on a computer, and can even take control of the machines it occupies. US officials believe Russian hackers have used Kaspersky software to spy on Americans, but Positive—a smaller company selling different products and services—has no equivalent.
Recent sanctions are the latest step in a tit for tat between Moscow and Washington over escalating cyber operations, including the Russian-sponsored SolarWinds attack against the US, which led to nine federal agencies being hacked over a long period of time. Earlier this year, the acting head of the US cybersecurity agency said recovering from that attack could take the US at least 18 months.
NASA selects SpaceX’s Starship as the lander to take astronauts to the moon
Surprising selection: Last year, NASA awarded three different groups contracts to further develop their own proposals for lunar landers: $135 million to SpaceX, $253 million to defense company Dynetics (which was working with Sierra Nevada Corporation), and $579 million to a four-company team led by Blue Origin (working with Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin, and Draper).
SpaceX didn’t just receive the least amount of money—its proposal also earned the worst technical and management ratings. NASA’s associate administrator (now acting administrator) Steve Jurczyk wrote (pdf) that Starship’s propulsion system was “notably complex and comprised of likewise complex individual subsystems that have yet to be developed, tested, and certified with very little schedule margin to accommodate delays.” The uncertainties were only exacerbated by SpaceX’s notoriously poor track record with meeting deadlines.
What changed: Since then, SpaceX has gone through a number of different flight tests of several full-scale Starship prototypes, including a 10-kilometer high-altitude flight and safe landing in March. (It also exploded a few times.) According to the Washington Post, documents suggest NASA was enamored with Starship’s ability to ferry a lot of cargo to the moon (up to 100 tons), not to mention its $2.9 billion bid for the contract, which was far lower than its rivals’.
“This innovative human landing system will be a hallmark in spaceflight history,” says Lisa Watson-Morgan, NASA’s program manager for the lunar lander system. “We’re confident in NASA’s partnership with SpaceX.”
What this means: For SpaceX’s rivals, it’s a devastating blow—especially to Blue Origin. The company, founded by Jeff Bezos, had unveiled its Blue Moon lander concept in 2019 and has publicly campaigned for NASA to select it for future lunar missions. Blue Moon was arguably the most well-developed of the three proposals when NASA awarded its first round of contracts.
For SpaceX, it’s a big vote of confidence in Starship as a crucial piece of technology for the next generation of space exploration. It comes less than a year after the company’s Crew Dragon vehicle was certified as the only American spacecraft capable of taking NASA astronauts to space. And it seems to confirm that the SpaceX is now NASA’s biggest private partner, supplanting veteran firms like Northrop Grumman and shunting newer ones like Blue Origin further to the sidelines. However, there’s at least one major hurdle: Starship needs to launch using a Super Heavy rocket—a design that SpaceX has yet to fly.
For NASA, the biggest implication is that SpaceX’s vehicles will only continue to play a bigger role for Artemis, the lunar exploration program being touted as the successor to Apollo. Former president Donald Trump’s directive for NASA to return astronauts to the moon by 2024 was never actually going to be realized, but the selection of a single human lander concept suggests NASA may not miss that deadline by much. The first Artemis missions will use Orion, and the long-delayed Space Launch System rocket is expected to be ready soon.