Artificial intelligence (AI) has been the source of plenty of controversy in recent years. The technology is continuing to develop and become more enhanced, but it has been used in some deeply concerning ways that many people are rightfully worried about.
Most recently, global pop superstar Taylor Swift found deepfake pornographic images of herself, generated by AI, being circulated across X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter.
Swift has not publicly commented on the offensive and fake material being shared, but her situation has highlighted the need for further digital privacy protections for victims of such imagery.
The sharing of private, intimate photos or videos of another person without their consent and with the purpose of causing embarrassment or distress is known as revenge porn.
In 2015, it became a sexual offence to share revenge porn in the UK. If found guilty, perpetrators face up to two years in prison.
What are deepfakes?
Deepfakes refer to images or videos that have been digitally manipulated to replace a person’s likeness with that of another. They can appear very real and convincing, and cause a lot of distress to victims who see themselves appearing to do something they have never actually done.
Many of these images are pornographic in nature. According to the Ministry of Justice, which warned that the use of deepfakes have been increasing in recent years, one website that virtually strips women naked received 38 million hits in the first eight months of 2021.
Amendments were made to the online safety bill - which received Royal Assent last October - to make it illegal to share explicit images or videos that have been digitally manipulated to look like a person without their consent.
What protections exist in the UK against deepfakes, and how can we stop them?
Currently, the Data Protection Act 2018 and UK GDPR rules that help protect people’s data can be used to protect against deepfakes.
Cybersecurity and data breach specialist Kevin Modiri, partner and solicitor at law firm Nelsons, tells Yahoo UK that UK GDPR legislation states that personal data means any information relating to an identified or identifiable natural person, including "name, identification number, location, or to one or more factors specific to physical, psychological, genetic, mental, economic, cultural, and social identity".
He explains that processing data covers a wide range of operations performed on personal data, which includes "collection, recording, organisation, structuring, storage, adaptation or alteration, retrieval, consultation, restriction, erasure, or destruction of personal data".
"In line with the above definitions, in order to adapt or alter an image of an individual in the UK, you would need a lawful basis for processing the image. The only lawful bases set out in the Data Protection Act or UK GDPR are: consent; by contract; vital interests; public task or legitimate interest."
Creators of deepfake videos are bound by UK GDPR and the Data Protection Act 2018, Modiri adds. This is because they are altering the image or video of an individual and putting it onto an entirely different video or image, so it would be classed as processing in accordance with UK GDPR.
What to do if you become a victim of deepfakes
Sophie Mortimer, Revenge Porn Helpline Manager, tells Yahoo UK that, if a pornographic deepfake is shared on or after 31 January, it is a criminal offence.
However, it is not a criminal offence to create a pornographic deepfake. If it is shared before 31 January, it could be part of a campaign of harassment if there are other incidents.
"We would encourage someone to report what has happened to the police, having collected what evidence they can (links to the content, screenshots, any information on who may be responsible (if they know)," she says.
Most platforms do not allow deepfake imagery of this nature, and so should respond to requests for removal. The Revenge Porn Helpline can also assist with getting images removed.
However, if a request for removal is unsuccessful, Modiri says victims can pursue a claim through the courts. Consulting a lawyer who can support with civil action could be beneficial, he advises.
"The claimant will need to rely on laws around privacy and data protection, publicity and brand protection, IP laws, and reputation and dignity to make a case.
"The Data Protection Act provides expressly for compensation to be payable to a victim in the event of a breach and such compensation can include compensation for distress. In addition to compensation, an individual could seek an injunction, asking for the removal of the offending image."
Watch: Taylor Swift AI deepfakes raise alarm, regulation questions
How do deepfakes affect victims?
The impact of deepfakes can be “devastating”, says Mortimer. However, victims often don’t know a deepfake of themselves has been created.
"We have had limited numbers of cases through to the helpline as the drivers appear to be very different from other forms of intimate image abuse: the behaviour is more about the creations, consumption and sharing of these images, not directly causing harm to the victim.
"When they do find out, it can be devastating, just as the sharing of genuine images is. The technology is so good now that the images are very realistic, but at the same time it is very disempowering and disconcerting to have such images created that look genuine but aren’t."
It is very difficult to avoid the creation of deepfakes, as the technology is widely available online. There are even "nudification apps", such as that mentioned by the Ministry of justice.
It is therefore "challenging" to combat deepfakes, Mortimer says, but StopNCII.org can help people prevent the sharing of their images across partnering platforms by creating digital hashes of intimate images, including deepfakes or synthetic content, on their own devices.
"The hashes are shares with our partner platforms, which are then used by platforms to identify and stop the sharing of images," Mortimer adds.
Read more about social media:
Mental health dangers of screen addiction and how to have a digital detox (Yahoo Life UK, 7-min read)
Princess Eugenie opens up about fears of being 'trolled' on social media (Yahoo Life UK, 5-min read)
Revenge porn: What it is and what you can do if you're a victim (Yahoo Life UK, 5-min read)