Published: 12:04, June 12, 2023 | Updated: 12:04, June 12, 2023
PDF View
Good and bad of AI face-swapping technology
By Calvin Tang

Editor's note: Artificial intelligence, many say, is the most advanced technological innovation. AI applications based on large models can serve transportation, energy and other fields, thereby boosting the economy. But there are fears that AI can disrupt social and political activities. Thanks to supportive policies, China has emerged as a pioneer in AI development in recent years. Two experts share their views on the issue with China Daily.


AI face-swapping technology allows users to obtain facial features, expressions, body movements and voice characteristics of target images through identification technology, and then use the information to create fake videos that can deceive viewers. In 2019, a "deepfake" user on a forum in the United States used this technology to replace multiple Hollywood stars and even pornographic video actors, and then publicly released the technology code, leading to the spread of this technology.

The advancement of artificial intelligence technology is both advantageous and disadvantageous to people. On the one hand, technological progress supports the growth of the entertainment industry and tackles obstacles in producing works even after the passing of prominent actors. For example, AI face-swapping technology allowed Paul Walker to make a posthumous appearance in the movie Fast and Furious 7 after his untimely death during filming.

On the other hand, such technology poses the risk of being misused and can infringe on the rights related to personal dignity, such as reputation and image rights. This includes illicitly trading videos that use face-swapping, stealing user information for fraudulent purposes.

Multiple risks posed by AI face-swapping tech

AI face-swapping technology is still in its infancy, and there is a need for improvement in the governance of the following risks by social institutions and legal frameworks.

People with malicious intent can exploit AI face-swapping technology to produce convincing fake videos for fraudulent purposes. These fraudulent activities comprise a broad range of illicit practices, including but not limited to identity theft, social engineering attacks, phishing scams, political manipulation, financial fraud, consumer fraud, and more.

Perpetrators can steal identities and impersonate real individuals online, commit crimes, orchestrate social engineering attacks, fabricate videos featuring relatives or friends of victims, and solicit money and sensitive personal information. They can also weaponize this technology for phishing scams, disseminating realistic videos and images online to trick victims into sharing sensitive information or downloading malicious software. The technology can be used to perpetrate financial fraud too, by persuading investors or customers to make endorsements or promises.

Additionally, e-commerce livestreamers have been known to deceive consumers into making purchases by using celebrity faces through AI face-swapping technology.

The misuse of such technology manifests in three primary forms: pornography-related crimes, defamation and rumors, and telecommunications and financial fraud. The first and most pervasive use of AI face-swapping technology was in the pornography industry, where the use of well-known figures generated significant traffic and had a more pronounced negative impact, making it challenging to prevent crime.

Defamation and rumors lead to the spread of fake news and videos, causing people to propagate rumors and misinformation. A false video about former US president Donald Trump, which criticized Belgium's internal affairs, caused considerable public discontent in Belgium in 2019. And the spread of rumors can easily lead to social unrest and undermine social trust.

Additionally, fraudsters who engage in telecommunications and financial fraud can utilize AI face-swapping, voice-swapping and fake videos to imitate the targeted persons' relatives and friends, thereby prompting the persons to lower their vigilance. Since AI face-swapping technology can create realistic fakes, people are profoundly threatened.

The risks of not addressing the risks

Further, the challenges posed by AI technology have not yet been integrated into the criminal legal system, making it challenging for authorities to investigate related crimes. For instance, the unreasonable collection and use of user information by the ZAO app, introduced by social media app developer Momo, generated severe mainstream media backlash, including criticism from Chinese media outlets like the People's Daily and Guangming Daily, and was questioned by the public.

However, despite its market position, ZAO could evade legal responsibility due to its unreasonable user agreements and market advantage. And the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology could only approach the case based on the standard clauses of the Contract Law. The use of facial data is yet to be classified as personal information under the Criminal Law, necessitating further legal clarification and judicial interpretation.

Also, platforms exploit contractual freedom to weaken the legal basis for criminal liability, making it challenging for authorities to demand platform cooperation.

At its core, the risks posed by AI face-swapping technology are rooted in three technical factors: personal information is easily abused without consent; authentic-looking videos and images prompt people to lower their guard; and authorities are constrained by legal loopholes, making it difficult to track down and punish wrongdoers through platforms. Based on these factors, the authorities can take targeted measures to address these risks.

There is a need to incorporate the personal information required by AI face-swapping technology into the legal definition of personal information under the law. Facial data is the most crucial personal information required. The authorities, for example, could clarify the interpretation of personal information under the law or issue judicial interpretations to determine that facial data are part of protected personal information. This is because facial data is easily infringed upon in the context of using AI face-swapping technology, which can have a more significant negative impact.

Moreover, some platforms exploit contractual freedom to exclude criminal liability and continue to illegally collect and use personal information. The authorities can classify such cases as "illegally collecting citizens' personal information by other means" and include them in the "crime of infringing on citizens' personal information".

This would help solve the authorities' problem of not being able to search for evidence and punish wrongdoers, prompting platforms to cooperate with investigations and deter users from misusing technology. This way, the government can strengthen the fight against crimes such as obscenity, defamation, rumormongering, fraud, and personal information infringement, and address the problem of AI face-swapping technology's misuse in social governance.

The authorities should also strengthen the regulations on the management of internet information services. The central government has issued a regulation which explicitly requires service providers to add identifiers that do not affect user usage, store log information, and assist the authorities in searching for evidence and investigating relevant crimes. The regulation also requires services providers to notify users and obtain consent before editing users' personal information, in order to reduce the possibility of personal information being abused without the users' knowledge.

However, the authorities should further strengthen regulations and take measures to hold platform managers accountable for any misuse of personal information. Specific measures could include submitting a list of high-level compliance managers and contact information when registering a business.

Once a violation is confirmed, the authorities can punish the platform according to the severity of the case, including but not limited to private warnings to responsible persons or companies, imposing fines on violators, prohibiting licensed persons or companies from operating for a certain period, revoking enterprise practice licenses, and listing them as enterprises with abnormal business operations or as enterprises that seriously violate laws and regulations.

In addition, the authorities should cooperate with research institutions and enterprises to develop countermeasures for AI face-swapping technology, enhance public awareness of misuse of personal information so people can guard against it, and provide protection against such misuse. The fundamental reason why AI face-swapping technology poses a social risk is that the information it presents seems authentic. As long as this remains unchanged, wrongdoers can use the technology to commit crimes.

Boost R&D to prevent misuse of information misuse

Therefore, netizens need to learn to counter technology and identify fraudulent AI face-swapping technology to prevent crime. Since people can train AI to recognize human voices, facial features and body postures to create face-swapping videos, they can use the same principle to train AI to identify fake ones.

And the government, research institutions and enterprises should work closely together to strengthen the research and development of countermeasures and upgrade them, publicize relevant information on social risks, and enhance the public's awareness, digital literacy and media literacy to prevent the misuse of personal information.

In conclusion, the government should also incorporate facial information into the legal definition of personal information under the law; further improve the regulations on the management of internet information services to hold platform managers accountable; and cooperate with research institutions and enterprises to develop countermeasures for AI face-swapping technology, and enhance public awareness to prevent the misuse of personal information.

The author is an EMPA candidate, Tsinghua University, and a member of China Retold.

The views don't necessarily reflect those of China Daily.