Social media is flush with videos of users, especially impressionable teenagers and millennials, using face-swapping tools to become instant 'Champagne Papis' in their network. On the flipside, there also exists a murky world associated with this trending saga.
In 2017, an anonymous user of Reddit posted defamatory videos of multiple celebrities in compromising positions. However, these were not real videos but, 'deepfakes' created by fusing the celebrity's face over an explicit video. Since then, the impact of deepfakes has been alarming, with politicians, senior corporates and world leaders being targeted by nefarious actors.
That brings us to the question of what is a deepfake and why should you be concerned? Deepfakes go a step ahead and are not just fake news pieces. They are video forgeries developed to spread misinformation, invade privacy and mask the truth by using advanced technologies such as trained algorithms, deep learning applications and artificial intelligence.
While one cannot deny the creative possibilities that the technology holds for the future in advancing film editing, production and virtual reality, this is a classic example of how emerging technology continues to be a double-edged sword, particularly when used for fraudulent purposes.
Deepfakes come in three main forms but the most widely known is a "face swap" technique. The repercussions are many and come with varying levels of gut-wrenching monstrosity. Imagine having your face morphed onto a pornographic video, triggering irrational mob fury or sparking a political crisis by grafting words and expressions on to the face and mouth of a politician to provoke anger and derision.
Deepfakes can also tarnish the public reputation or stock prices of a business by creating highly realistic inflammatory videos of C-suite executives or by impersonating a client over video calling platforms, requesting for sensitive project information. With fraudsters adopting higher levels of sophistication, the ultimate threat looms from the uncertainty amongst consumers who do not know what's true anymore.
The ease with which someone could do this is frightening. The technology is relatively easy to use, especially with readily available machine learning algorithms and open-source codes. The process also requires just a basic consumer-grade graphics card to get the job done within hours.
Software tools are designed to allow people, without a technical background or programming experience, to create deepfakes. With enough photo and video content of the target, usually sourced through their publicly available social media profiles, one can simply hire an expert to develop fake videos of unsuspecting victims. Multiple frames pulled from one or more videos can help gather the few hundred images required to develop fake videos.
Deepfakes can have a devastating impact on their victims, leading to traumatic stress disorders, depression, anxiety and in extreme cases, driving them to the point of suicide. It can smear the victim's public reputation, resulting in unemployability, layoffs, being ousted from schools and being forced to relocate homes.
The menace of deepfakes is here to stay, considering how algorithms used to create them are evolving almost at the same rate as the ones deployed to detect such videos. This makes it difficult for online communities such as Reddit, Gfycat, Pornhub and Discord to delete them from their platforms, even as solutions to identify face swapped videos are being developed.
As a precautionary measure, it is important for people to limit accessibility of their photographic material available in the public domain by employing necessary privacy controls. Make it a practice to regularly run a Google search with your name to ensure no derogatory material attributed to you has been uploaded online.
Be cognizant of your partner increasingly recording videos or photos from different angles which may be later used to develop deepfakes. Be aware of your rights - many of the websites comply with takedown requests of deepfakes by providing reporting mechanisms under the non-consensual pornography category.
While deepfake technology is at an early stage in India, considering its rapid proliferation, it is important to develop guidelines and regulations to stay ahead of the curve by anticipating this rampant misuse of the tech.
Developing a regulatory framework, effective monitoring and punishable laws for such offences will be critical in controlling this wildfire before it causes extensive damage to individuals and society at large. Until then, it is up to us consumers to remain resilient, vigilant and aware to protect ourselves from the dark world of deepfakes.(The author is VP Engineering and MD, McAfee India.)