Gordon Smith

The murky world of Meitu: Behind the anime face mask


Approx Reading Time-11If there’s one thing that will get us through life, it’s Meitu’s animefying face filters. But what’s really going on with this app?


We’ve all had the burning (somewhat gender confusing) desire to depart this cursed world and become a magical girl (魔法少女, “mahou shoujo” – yes, such a term exists), hair tied in crime fighting buns, body draped in the finest of school uniforms.

That also means that we have all had to go through the very painful process of coming to terms with our own reality, and the heartbreaking notion that such a ribbon-filled transformation is simply not possible.

At least, that used to be the case. Desperate times call for desperate measures, and in a world ruled by Trump and Co., one would be forgiven for being a little bit stubborn in their quest to find a better life.

Enter the power of photo filters. No longer are you bound by the rules of the third dimension, nor does your gender dictate how magical a magical girl you really are; with a little tweak, you can be as cute as you are capable in your every snap.

Granted, this is hardly a new phenomenon. The anime palace that is Japan has been home to “purikura” (プリクラ, a shortening of “print club”) machines since the ’90s, and these photo booths have been home for tourists and locals alike.

You know the ones: the big bright marker fonts, the ever too much glitter, the dead in the eyes expansion of the retina – the usual.

In fact the idea of someone (or something) being turned into an anime style even has a native term: “anime-ka” (アニメ化), which can be loosely translated into “anime-fication”.

But things really turned up to eleven when this facial-fication entered the App Store. Meitu is a Hong Kong-developed photography app released in 2008, now boasting 456 million active users and 6 billion photos being created per month.

Meitu even says the app had been installed on more than 1 billion devices before it reached its international fame.

Initially ranked at number 317 in the “photos and video” section of the US App Store, January 10 saw an update to the anime filter abilities, prompting a massive climb in the charts.

With promises of “cross-dimensional beauty”, it’s hard to see where the astronomical rise came from, but perhaps the biggest publicity the application received came from the much needed relief it brought in a climate filled with stories of golden showers and tiny little hands.

Indeed, it is the ability for this app to interface with user’s camera rolls that sets it apart from its markedly anime-free competition, and that has set Twitter aflame.

It should be noted that like all good things in life, Meitu too carries a dark underbelly.

For an app that revolves around photo editing, it sure does need a lot of access. For Android users, the app request your location, your phone number and permission to automatically run on startup, as well as further settings such as audio.

It also needs to access your camera and photo library, but listing those generally normal details along with the frankly ludicrous permissions above seemed more than a little odd.

Things aren’t much better on the iOS side of the camp, where Meitu checks if your device is jail broken, which provider you’re using, and even carries the code needed to find your device’s unique identifying MAC address.

Keep in mind, that address exists only on your device, and that it, in conjunction with your carrier information, can reveal quite a lot about you.

So why would an app that bills itself as being all photos need to have so much control?

“Security pessimists” claim that the details can be, and already are, used to sell your information to advertisers, who are then able to specifically target you.

Some speculate things are even darker, with your device’s IMEI, another unique identifying number, having already been sent to multiple servers in China.

In a statement to CNET, Meitu claims that the data detection code is included due to the company’s headquarters being located in China, where tracking services provided by app stores are blocked.

This is in spite of the fact that such a code is in violation of Apple’s terms and conditions.

The use of carrier identification is apparently for the sake of geolocation and ad placement, which certainly sounds worth the privacy trade-off.

So, you have two options:

You enter the anime shaded world of Meitu to escape the ever worsening world we live in and have your rights to privacy (along with your device’s settings) violated ten ways to Sunday.

Or, you keep your device Meitu-free and retain your privacy, but have no choice other than to accept the harsh reality that is life under Trump.

Really, they’re two sides to the same terrible coin.

Heads up.


Gordon Smith

Journalist by day, cunning linguist by night. A passion for politics, hypnotically involved in human rights. An Australian born with a Japanese tongue, hoping to hold the big wigs in government to account.

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