Thursday, February 9

‘Deepfake’ video technology has sinister implications for governments, businesses and individuals. It isn’t too late to act

The video circulated in March of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy calling for Ukrainians to lay down arms triggered a collective gasp across the world. That was, until the video was debunked as a “deepfake.”

Deepfake technology allows users to create doctored videos of individuals doing and saying things they didn’t do. Deepfake videos did not start with the mediocre lip sync of Zelenskyy. They won’t end there either; the number of deepfake videos is doubling year after year. Described as “photoshopping on steroids,” deepfake technology could plunge our already fractured societies into further turmoil. They could equally be used to tarnish businesses and their leaders in acts of economic cyberwarfare.

We must learn our lessons from the prolific rise in misinformation and fake news; by the time this technology becomes commonplace, it will be too late. We must act now in order to counter the next mutation of weaponized disinformation.

Though Zelenskyy’s video — which was broadcasted on Ukrainian TV — was quickly debunked, it will be harder to discredit the next of its kind. As with any form of emerging technology, deepfake technology is becoming exponentially more advanced.

This has sinister implications. One report showed that 96 per cent of deepfake technology had been used to target public female figures by putting their faces onto graphic, adult material. Gal Gadot and Scarlett Johansson have both fallen victim to this.

The ease at which deepfakes can be created and circulated poses a significant political risk. Videos of presidents saying things they didn’t say may become commonplace. These could easily be disseminated in order to sway elections or stoke racial tensions.

Zelenskyy’s weaponized video should not only serve as a warning for those in the political sphere — corporate America must also take note. Imagine if, say, a compelling deepfake video circulated of a CEO telling a sexist joke on the eve of an IPO? Or if the head of a charity were seen asking for a pay increase as a result of record-breaking donations? Such a smear would be enough to topple an entire business or ruin a personal reputation.

It isn’t too late to act. In fact, the time to act is now.

Big Tech platforms must provide assurance that they are taking measures to battle the rise of deepfakes. Considering how easily these platforms were manipulated in the run-ups to the 2016 and 2020 U.S. elections, it is clear that action must be taken. They should prove that they are investing in the tools that could protect against deepfake technology, from blockchain solutions to AI programs.

Companies must place cybersecurity at the heart of their growth strategies. Business leaders must cultivate an authentic public voice through their communication channels, so that they can counter any deepfake smears before they gain traction.

The rise of certain technologies may seem inevitable, but it isn’t. We do not have to accept that these developments will continue to turn the internet into a vector of manipulation and falsehood. With a co-ordinated effort across both public and private spheres, we can stamp out the nefarious uses of this pernicious technology.

Ultimately, the tools we build are only as good as the people who use them. It’s our responsibility to make sure that the right tools prosper, and the wrong ones get left to wallow in the history books.

We need a three-tiered approach. First, there need to be public awareness campaigns. Second, we need to increase regulation and introduce serious penalties for those who use deepfakes in a manipulative way. Finally, we need to incentivize the private sector to create new technologies that can easily detect deepfakes.

The world we live in today is already difficult enough to navigate. The last thing we need is to add further questions about credibility to the very media we consume around the clock.

Brendan Egan is the founder of Simple SEO Group, a boutique marketing and technology agency. He is also the co-founder of Engage, a company digitizing the talent booking industry, and is a partner or investor in nearly a dozen other technology companies.

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