By Caolán Maguire

In the long record of human history, technological advancement has usually proven to be something for us to celebrate. Advances in personal computing have made commerce more accessible, healthcare more convenient, and connected each of us with loved ones and friends. However, we’ve all gotten into the attitude of blindly celebrating these emerging technologies and often branding those who question their merits as skeptics. The emergence of realistic deep-fake technology is a technology with little benefit to the average consumer but could offer the scam artist, the vengeful ex-partner, or the common bully an invaluable tool for impersonating an individual and causing severe harm or distress. 

This may all sound like science fiction and something we may need to worry about down the line – but the issue of online or phone call impersonation has existed for as long as social media has been a thing and this new technology will provide those who impersonate with a much more sophisticated tool to create image, video and in some cases audio of an individual doing or saying anything or appearing in any way. For example in the United States corporate attorney, Gary Schildhorn, himself a victim of a scam made possible by audio impersonation technology testified, in front of lawmakers of his experience receiving an emotional phone call from a scammer using technology to imitate his son, claiming he had been in a car accident, failed a breathalyzer test, been sent to jail and needed bail money of 9000 US dollars wired to him. Like any good father, Mr. Schildhorn immediately headed to his credit union, convinced he’d just spoken to his son and was only saved from this scam when he called his son’s work to say his son wouldn’t make it in due to the accident- only for his son to call him and assure him he was fine. Mr. Schildhorn was saved a great deal of money but no doubt was not saved from a panicked and harmful experience. While that story had a positive ending, families and individuals up and down our own island have not been as lucky, fraudsmart, an initiative of the Banking and Payments Federation of Ireland, stated Irish victims were conned out of €8.6m in the first six months of 2023 alone.

The financial impact of deep fakes is however the least of their full cost, reports of impersonated social media accounts imitating young people claiming to be those individuals and offering explicit material have been plentiful – in many cases these young people’s parents have not been made aware of these impersonated accounts until after said accounts were already made available and indeed their personal reputation already affected. This is without question a concerning trend, however, an additional concern parents must spend particular attention to going forward is how deep fakes may be used by children to imitate other young people online or in media – bullying has been an issue that has tormented generations of children and adults alike, and while we all by instinct want to trust our young most of us know how vicious and cruel children can treat one another in certain circumstances. The introduction of the ability to easily and increasingly accurately imitate your colleagues offers the spiteful bully the ability to wreak havoc on those they make victim of their cowardice behaviour. Indeed any given child or adult in their lives may fall victim. Brave and thought-through legislation like COCO’s law will of course help us protect all citizens against this technology in court however schools, teachers and parents must be able to shut the use of this technology down before it becomes prevalent in our schools and colleges.

As we move towards this technology likely to be available on every smartphone, tablet, and computer, we must begin to practice our best judgment, check in on what our young are doing on their devices, get comfortable with reporting and labeling disingenuous material online, and pressure our public representatives and particularly social media companies to adopt a comprehensive policy to stop this emerging technology from affecting citizens.

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