Every now and then, a new face swap app appears that takes the internet by storm. For a couple of days, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are taken over by selfies that have been digitally altered to show us as older, younger or as a different gender.

There is something undeniably funny about snapping a selfie and then swapping our face with a friend’s, which is why these apps are so popular. But before long you will start to see pictures showing celebrities that have been altered. Later they will be followed by similar images of criminals, killers and despot dictators.

Good technology goes bad

What starts out as a harmless bit of fun can quickly spiral out of control, becoming distasteful – or downright offensive. Which is why privacy watchdogs and government legislators are increasingly concerned about this technology, known as “deep fakes”.

Deep fake techniques are not only applied to selfies, but they can also be used on video. Many female celebrities have discovered their faces digitally ‘mapped’ onto porn films for instance, causing embarrassment and distress.

But it’s not just celebrities who are affected. Women from all walks of life are finding themselves falling victim to the same misuse of technology from stalkers, malicious exes or internet trolls. And once these deep fake videos have been released online, victims can face discrimination or further abuse.
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Steps to combat deep fakes

Although the UK already has laws that regulate some online activity, such as hate speech, they tend to be quite out of date. Technology has evolved much faster than regulations, creating many unforeseen situations. When the Malicious Communications Act became law, the technology which powers face swap apps had not even been thought of, let alone invented.

The UK government is now taking steps to better protect internet users with a new law – the Online Communications Act. This law will create a host of new offences designed to tackle the realities of the modern internet – including malicious use of deep fake technologies.

The proposed act is not without its problems. Some civil rights advocates warn that the law will have a significant negative effect on free speech, despite the good intentions behind the legislation. They fear that the new law may be used in ways that have not been properly considered – the same as many new technologies are used in ways that were never conceived by their creators.

The Online Safety Bill is still under consideration by the British parliament and could still undergo significant revisions before it becomes law. But for any person who has ever fallen victim to misused deep fake technology, there is at last some hope that their tormentors will be properly punished for their crimes.