FBI issues warning: AI deepfakes and sextortion on the rise

FBI says it’s receiving reports from victims including minor children and non-consenting adults.
Sejal Sharma
Representational image
Representational image


People’s photographs and videos are being misused by malicious actors who are using artificial intelligence (AI) to create deepfakes to target their victims. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) put out a Public Service Announcement (PSA) on June 5, warning U.S. citizens that there’s been an uptick in cases of sextortion and harassment on the internet.

A deepfake is synthetic content created by manipulating digital media using artificial intelligence and machine learning processes. Deepfakes appear very real. This technology can make a person do or say things that they have never done or said.

The FBI said that it’s receiving reports from victims including minor children and non-consenting adults, whose content on social media is being altered into explicit content. The doctored images and videos then make their way to widespread circulation on social media or pornographic websites. 

“The photos are then sent directly to the victims by malicious actors for sextortion or harassment, or until it was self-discovered on the internet. Once circulated, victims can face significant challenges in preventing the continual sharing of the manipulated content or removal from the internet,” said the FBI PSA.

With photo-generating software like Adobe’s Photoshop, which now has generative AI capabilities, and OpenAI’s DALL-E, photo manipulation has become easy.

"We hear the stories about the famous people, it can actually be done to anybody. And deepfake actually got started in revenge porn," said Neil Sahota, a United Nations AI adviser, as reported in Interesting Engineering. "You really have to be on guard."

Sahota added that the way to spot manipulated media is through video and audio that appear off.

"You got to have a vigilant eye. If it's a video, you got to look for weird things, like body language, weird shadowing, that kind of stuff. For audio, you got to ask… 'Are they saying things they would normally say? Do they seem out of character? Is there something off?'" he added.

The FBI has observed that there’s been an increase in victims reporting these crimes. The perpetrators either demand payment in the form of money and gift cards, or they ask the victims to send their real sexually-themed images or videos. The perpetrators also intimidate the victim by threatening to share their doctored images and videos with their family members or friends on social media.

Sextortion violates several federal criminal statutes, said the FBI. It involves extorting money or sexual favors from victims by threatening to share them publicly. The key motivators of a malicious actor are to entrap the victim into giving them more illicit content, harass them or take as much money from them as possible.

The FBI has issued the warning, asking people to exercise caution when they log on to social media. The agency has urged the public to be careful when posting anything on the internet or direct messaging personal photos, videos, and personal information on social media, dating apps, and other online sites. 

“Advancements in content creation technology and accessible personal images online present new opportunities for malicious actors to find and target victims. This leaves them vulnerable to embarrassment, harassment, extortion, financial loss, or continued long-term re-victimization,” said the FBI.

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