Deepfake apps are here and we can’t let them run amok

Picture of Nina Schick

Nina Schick

March 23, 2023


Nina Schick and Henry Ajder for WIRED.

Over the last five years, AI has seen rapid improvements in its ability to generate synthetic versions of people’s faces and voices – commonly known as deepfakes. Generating the earliest deepfakes required powerful computers and technical expertise, but deepfake creation is now being increasingly democratised via intuitive interfaces and off-device processing that require no special skills or computing power.

This has led to the rise of deepfake apps, where anyone can create a deepfake from their smartphone. Some of these apps allow users to accurately swap their face with that of a celebrity, while others recreate a user’s facial movements in a video of another person. An app called Jiggy even generates GIFs of the user doing different dances based on a single photo of their body.

Deepfakes generated by these apps aren’t highly realistic, but more sophisticated versions of the technology have been used to create photorealistic images of non-existent people, replicate Jay Z’s voice “rapping” Shakespeare, and synchronise Snoop Dogg’s lip movements to Just Eat adverts.

Creating these realistic deepfakes still requires significant expertise and hardware. South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker employed 20 professional “deepfakers” and VFX specialists to create a new satirical deepfake show, Sassy Justice, which follows a small-town TV reporter with Donald Trump’s face as he encounters deepfaked celebrities including Al Gore, Ivanka Trump and Michael Caine. Stone and Parker stated that the first 15-minute video had cost millions to produce.

But technical expertise and financial resources may not be barriers to creating realistic deepfakes for much longer, as developers race to harness deepfakes’ potential to define a new generation of social content. One company leading the way is Ukraine-based Reface, whose face-swapping app had been downloaded over 20 million times by mid-August 2020, topping both the Apple and Android stores in 100 countries. Reface’s CEO, Roman Mogylnyi, recently told TechCrunch that upgrades are in the pipeline to enhance the app’s deepfake quality and include full-body swaps. In Mogylnyi’s mind, the future of deepfake apps represents “a personalisation platform where people will be able to live different lives during their one lifetime.” But the commodification of advanced deepfake apps raises questions about how they could be misused.

Glimpses of this misuse are already visible. One of this article’s co-authors recently discovered a “deepfake pornography bot” on the messaging app Telegram, which allowed users to upload pictures of clothed women and “strip” them by generating their deepfake nude images. Over 100,000 of deepfake images of women and minors were shared on Telegram channels counting over 100,000 members.

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