TECH
24/06/2019 7:10 AM IST

Here's What It's Like To See Yourself In A Deepfake Porn Video

There's almost nothing you can do to get a fake sex tape of yourself taken offline.

On a busy workday in March, 28-year-old Kate felt an urgent tap on her shoulder. Her colleague wanted to show her a video, so she glanced at his computer and was shocked to see her own face staring back, wincing and moaning. She appeared on-screen to be lying naked on a couch with her legs in the air while a man repeatedly penetrated her.

Kate felt sick. Her co-workers, who’d gathered around to see what was going on, instantly fell silent when they saw the video. It looked real and even identified Kate by name, but she knew it couldn’t be. Beyond the obvious — she’d never done porn — she could tell it wasn’t her body; only the face was hers. It had to be some kind of hoax… but would other people believe it?

“It was horrifying,” Kate, who lives in Texas, told HuffPost. “I’d never seen anything like it.”

The video, which is still online and has tens of thousands of views, is a deepfake — a doctored video created with artificial-intelligence software that can make someone appear to do or say anything. Deepfake algorithms use a dataset of videos and images of an individual to create a virtual model of their face that can be superimposed and manipulated. In Kate’s case, her face was swapped onto a porn actress’ head.

“When it’s Photoshop, it’s a static picture and can be very obvious that it’s not real,” said Kate, who’s been the target of previous misogynistic attacks. “But when it’s your own face reacting and moving, there’s this panic that you have no control over how people use your image.”

At first, deepfake porn almost exclusively featured female celebrities; their television and movie appearances gave video creators plenty of material to work with. But now, as the technology has advanced and become more broadly accessible, ordinary women with even a small selection of public photos or videos of themselves are being targeted too.

HuffPost spoke to six women who have been digitally inserted into porn without their consent.Those quoted here are identified by pseudonyms to protect their privacy, and are speaking out to call attention to an issue that’s been left to fester in the shadows.

Most public discussion on deepfakes thus far has centered on the potential political problems they could cause in the future, even though they already pose a real threat to women. Lawmakers havefretted about how the videos could hypothetically make a presidential candidate appear to say something defamatory on the eve of next year’s election. Satirical deepfakes of actor Arnold Schwarzenegger and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg have recently dominated headlines as warnings of what’s to come.

Meanwhile, as deepfake porn continues to upend women’s lives, there’s been little media coverage, and there still exists no criminal recourse for victims.

“The harm done to women when it comes to this kind of sexual objectification is happening now,”saidMary Anne Franks, a law professor at the University of Miami and president of the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative. “It’s almost like people have forgotten that this is what this technology really started out as, and the conversation around women has fallen away.”

Deepfakes Are Rooted In Misogyny

Deepfakes have been weaponized against women for as long as they’ve existed. The term “deepfake” was coined in 2017 by an anonymous Reddit user who shared doctored porn videos like the one above, which portrays “Wonder Woman” star Gal Gadot. Today, major porn websites are filled with deepfakes, despite promises to ban them. (MindGeek, which owns Pornhub and other erotic video sites, did not respond to repeated requests for comment about the no-deepfakes policy it announced more than a year ago.)

Other tech platforms have wavered in their approach to deepfakes hosted on their sites, torn between calls to stamp out disinformation and to protect free expression. Inside the federal government, legislators have started to sound the alarm about the videos, and a few have introduced bills toregulate them, such as the DEEPFAKES Accountability Act from Rep. Yvette Clarke (D-N.Y.).But so far, none have resulted in action.

Once something is uploaded it can never really get deleted. It will just be reposted forever.Tina, a victim of nonconsensual deepfake porn

Without any such intervention or effective policies in place, deepfake porn has carved out a comfortable space online — and it’s thriving. In addition to free, easy-to-use deepfake generator apps, there are now photo search engines (which HuffPost won’t name) that allow people to upload pictures of individuals to find porn actresses with similar features for optimal face-swapping results. There are even deepfake porn forums where men make paid requests for professional-looking videos of specific women, and share links to the women’s social media profiles for source imagery. HuffPost has observed requesters seeking porn with female Twitch, YouTube and Instagram influencers, as well as the requesters’ own co-workers, friends and exes.

On one such forum in March, someone asked for a sex video of Tina, a 24-year-old Canadian woman, and dropped a link to her YouTube channel. Four days later, a deepfake popped up that appeared to show her bent over naked on a bed with one man thrusting behind her and another stroking his penis near her head. The video, which is virtually seamless, is still up with thousands of views.

“I was definitely shocked and disturbed,” Tina, who learned of the video when an acquaintance sent her a link, told HuffPost. “It felt really weird and gross to see my face where it shouldn’t be.”

The video poster and claimed creator is a middle-aged man, according to his profile. Tina has no idea who he is. She thought about trying to get the video taken down, but didn’t see a point once she realized it had already been shared to other websites.

“You know how the internet is — once something is uploaded it can never really get deleted,” she said. “It will just be reposted forever.”

Someone makes an anonymous, paid request for deepfake porn of their crush.

It Could Happen To Anyone

Until recently, convincing, deepfake-style video manipulation could only be done by highly skilled editors. Hollywood filmmakers have digitallyinserted actors into movies posthumously, for example, which required a considerable amount of footage of the actors’ faces to work with. Now, rapidly advancing technology has democratized this kind of deceptive video-editing practice at women’s expense. We’ve reached a point where even amateurs with relatively few pictures of their target’s face can create deepfake porn on their own.

One self-proclaimed video creator, who describes himself online as a 25-year-old Greek man and “one of the first guys” to make deepfake porn, solicits donations and paid requests on multiple forums. People have watched his videos more than 300,000 times.

Deepfakes are “no different from a photoshop manipulation or artist drawing/rendering,” the man, who did not reveal his name, told HuffPost. Asked if anyone ever requests that he remove the sex videos he uploads, he replied: “There are no takedowns.”

Despite his disregard for women’s privacy, he seems rather concerned with protecting his own: “I’m accepting payments in bitcoin and other crypto currencies (no paypal/credit card due to privacy reasons),” he wrote in one post. In another, he listed his price range as around $15 to $40 per video.

“Women can tell men, ‘I don’t want to date you, I don’t want to know you, I don’t want to take my clothes off for you,’ but now men can say, ‘Oh yeah? I’m going to force you to, and if I can’t do it physically, I will do it virtually,’” said Franks. “There’s nothing you can really do to protect yourself except not exist online.”

She’s hopeful that as people become increasingly aware of deepfakes and deepfake porn in particular, they’ll become more skeptical of what they see online.

“The only silver lining, if you can even call it that,” she said, “is that the more people know about this, the more they’ll start to question if [revenge porn videos] are real.”

But deepfakes have also broadened the threat of revenge porn, or nonconsensual porn. A vindictive creep no longer needs nudes or sex tapes of a woman who’s spurned him to leak online. He just needs her Facebook or Instagram photos to deepfake into existing porn. And as these videos get easier to make, they’re also getting harder to recognize.

There’s nothing you can really do to protect yourself except not exist online.Mary Anne Franks, president of the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative

Like so many women, Amy, a mother and business owner who’s based in Los Angeles, has been harassed in the past with crudely altered images that were disturbing but clearly fake. She’d never heard of deepfakes until she was featured in onethat portrays her having sex, and labels her a “slut.” In the comments section, people have commended the anonymous creator for the video’s believability.

“It didn’t get really concerning until the technology and skill level of those putting it together got better — to the point where people might actually believe that was me,” Amy told HuffPost. “If we see a video of something, we take it as fact.”

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, a branch of the U.S. Department of Defense, has been working in recent years to develop machine-learning algorithms that can detect manipulated videos, including deepfakes. Much of the challenge lies in keeping pace with deepfake software as it continues to evolve.

“As the people making these videos get more and more sophisticated with their tools, we’re going to have to get more and more sophisticated with ours,” Edward Delp, a media forensics expert at Purdue Universitywho’s conducting research for DARPA, said in a recent interview with HuffPost. “It’s going to be an arms race.”

Nicolas Ortega
Malicious deepfakes are usually posted anonymously and designed to go viral.

No Real Options For Victims

Maya, a 29-year-old woman who also lives in Los Angeles, wasn’t aware that she’s featured in deepfake porn until HuffPost contacted her last week. She was aghast to learn of the video, which identifies her by name and appears to show her masturbating. But she wasn’t entirely surprised: She’s been receiving a lot of messages lately from strangers requesting sex.

“Being violated in such an intimate way is really a weird feeling,” Maya told HuffPost. “The idea of people sexualizing me makes me feel like I’m being fetishized, receiving unwanted attention, losing respect as a person and no longer safe.”

The unfortunate reality for Maya and other women in her situation is that there’s not much they can do now that the videos are out there. Lawsuits can be extremely expensive, and in order to sue for harassment, impersonation, defamation or even misappropriation of image — which typically only applies for celebrities — you need to know who you’re suing. Like many victims of nonconsensual deepfake porn, Maya has no clue who created or posted the video of her.

And because online intermediaries, including social media giants and deepfake forums, are shielded from liability for third-party content thanks to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, suing the sites that host the video would be pointless too. Platforms can’t get in legal trouble for the things their users post, and aren’t required to remove them. As a result, trying to get abusive content taken offline is often futile.

“As disappointing and sobering as it is, there aren’t a lot of options for victims,” said Carrie Goldberg, an attorney specializing in sexual privacy. Deepfake websites exist “to monetize people’s humiliation,” she added. “It points to the infirmity that Section 230 has caused when there are websites that are so arrogant about their immunity from liability.”

Since malicious deepfakes are usually posted anonymously and designed to go viral, victims’ advocates such as Danielle Citron are urging lawmakers to develop a policy that’s focused not only on punishing the producers, but also the distributors. She and Franks are working together to draft a federal criminal law that would hold platforms accountable for wittingly amplifying hoax videos and enabling them to be spread around.

“If [there are] impersonations or manipulations that do not reflect what we’ve done or said, platforms should — once they figure it out — take it down,” Citron, who’s a law professor at the University of Maryland,said this month at the first congressional hearing on deepfakes. At this stage, she noted, there’s no way to filter the videos from being posted, so platforms should be required to remove them as soon as they’re flagged.

Free speech proponents worry that unless it’s done very carefully, forcing websites to restrict certain content could lead to broader repercussions for online expression.

But as Franks argued, unbridled deepfake porn is already doing just that.

“There’s a massive chilling effect that deepfake pornography has on women’s speech,” she said, “because the way to make yourself safer is to censor yourself.”

Pornhub
Pornhub is still riddled with deepfakes, despite promising to ban them more than a year ago.

Women Are Being Silenced

Investigative journalist Rana Ayyub has experienced firsthand the silencing effect Franks described. Last spring, she was the victim of a targeted disinformation campaign in India that was intended to intimidate and humiliate her.

The abuse began the day after she publicly condemned a political party’s shameful response to the rape of a young girl. Suddenly, screenshots showing a series of defamatory tweets falsely appearing to be from Ayyub began circulating online. She then realized a deepfake porn video featuring her face was spreading across social media like wildfire, alongside her name and phone number. It was viewed hundreds of thousands of times, and Ayyub started getting calls and messages asking for sex.

“It was devastating,” she told HuffPost UK. “The entire country was watching a porn video that claimed to be me, and I just couldn’t bring myself to do anything.”

Even now that the video has been debunked as fake, Ayyub will never be able to fully move on. She can’t undo the damage to her reputation, and she’s afraid of drawing more attention to herself on social media.

“I used to be very opinionated; now I’m much more cautious about what I post online. I’ve self-censored quite a bit out of necessity,” she said. “I’m constantly thinking, ‘What if someone does something to me again?’”

Kate, the woman from Texas whose co-worker found deepfake porn of her, has struggled to move forward too. When she contacted her lawyer, he explained that the case would be incredibly difficult to fight because she didn’t know who was behind the video.

With no viable legal options on the table, Kate reluctantly turned to the deepfake forum where the video was posted and asked for it to be removed. The site owner told her she wasn’t the only woman on the page, then stopped replying, Kate said. She felt hopeless.

“It’s grotesque to know that it lives out there and there’s nothing I can do about it,” she said. “These things are so horribly believable, and you desperately want to say, ‘That’s not me!’ But that would just bring more attention to it.”

Like Ayyub, Kate has also started to limit what she shares online for fear that her content could be distorted and used against her without consequence yet again.

“Pornographic deepfakes and revenge porn and all that kind of stuff are only going to make women want to say less,” she said. “As these videos get more prolific and realistic, is this something we’re just going to be expected to accept as the cost of being online?”