Published: 23:53, May 29, 2024
PDF View
City may need laws to tackle social media fraud
By Mark Pinkstone

Unscrupulous internet retailers rely on the gullibility of a naive market to make huge profits from nonexistent products by hiding under the skirts of well-known social media platforms.

The Hong Kong Police Force reported that online scams hit an all-time high last year, with losses reaching HK$9 billion ($1.15 billion). Despite efforts to control their activities, scammers continue to rip off unsuspecting targets. Police cite a deepfake assault on a Hong Kong company at which an employee heard the CEO on a telecom meeting instructing the transfer of $25.6 million to five other bank accounts. The telecom group thought it strange that the CEO would make such a request, but seeing is believing. However, that was not the case; it was a fake synthesized voiceover by the CEO. Unfortunately, the money has never been recovered, nor have the perpetrators been arrested. It is so easy that Microsoft’s new Vall-E tool can replicate a voice with as little as three seconds of audio.

The latest scam to hit the screens is the proliferation of insurance brokers offering free medical hospitalization and treatment at a fee to the elderly, even though the Department of Health and the Hospital Authority already offer full free medical services to those over 75. There is no need for such insurance unless, of course, it is for private hospitalization. The advertisements from the brokers say the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region government is offering free medical services for everyone in May. But that is not the case. All medical and hospital services in Hong Kong remain unchanged.

Scammers’ deceptions have the full support, if unintended, of online platforms, which refuse requests to remove obvious scams under the guise of “freedom of speech”.

A classic example of blatant social media abuse was deepfake voiceovers by officials, businesspeople, and celebrities to sell cybercurrency and investment opportunities. Day after day, “live” images of Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee Ka-chiu, billionaire Li Ka-shing, and popular TV host Melissa Gecolea would appear on Facebook selling investments. The images are real, but the voices are not, because of a sophisticated process of utilizing artificial intelligence to dissect, imitate, and regenerate a person’s voice digitally.

For now, Hong Kong will have to wait and see what regulations might be introduced in the future to protect residents from falling prey to criminals leveraging the latest technology while considering the sensitivities of freedom of speech

Enough was enough for Gecolea, who decided to expose the fraud through her regular TVB Pearl program, The Pearl Report, after Facebook refused to remove the offending video. “This content does not go against our community standards”, Facebook told Gecolea. Need to be better! Gecolea took the matter to Meta, Facebook’s parent company, which replied, via a robot, “When we identify fake accounts or deceptive content that violates our policies, we will remove them.” But it didn’t. She persevered and finally found a real person at Meta whom she finally convinced to take it down. At the same time, she reported the fake posts to the police, who helped expedite the takedowns.

Lee was another victim of deepfake misrepresentation, which forced the government to denounce the bogus creation, emphasizing the importance of public awareness regarding such deceitful tactics.

Facebook lists fraud and deception in its list of no-nos in its definition of community standards and adds: “We want to make sure that the concept people see on Facebook is authentic.”

However, it is anything but authentic.

There are laws in Europe, the US and China that deal with AI-related fake news. Singapore has what is known as fake-news laws (the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act), which criminalizes false statements related to the security of Singapore, public health, safety finances and elections.

Professor Lam Sam, a cybersecurity expert and associate vice-president of the Hong Kong College of Technology, told the TVB program that currently, Hong Kong is taking a wait-and-see approach. At the same time, these crimes would have to fall within the existing laws of fraud, copyright, and defamation. “One thing that is quite disappointing is that we still don’t have cybersecurity-related laws here. Right now, we don’t have a comprehensive law focusing on cybersecurity. We don’t have an overall holistic view about this. I guess (what) is needed is the cooperation, collaboration among the different bureaus, and the industry and other sectors, to look at this as a whole”, Lam said.

Although Hong Kong does not have any laws regulating deepfakes, the police believe they have enough power, and remind people to guard their data, including face and voice; fact-check information; follow the “If it’s too good to be true, it probably isn’t” rule, and use available tools like the Scameter app, which allows users to double-check links, phone numbers, and even bank account details.

The cyberworld is not beyond the law. As far as the existing legislation in Hong Kong is concerned, most of the laws enacted to prevent crimes in the real world are, in principle, applicable to the cyberworld, including social media and mobile-communications software. Even though there is no legislation against fake news in Hong Kong, various provisions are in place under the existing legal framework to deal with disseminating inappropriate information. Any acts that incite others to break the law are regulated by the relevant laws regardless of whether they are committed online or using advanced technology such as AI to create deepfakes.

For now, Hong Kong will have to wait and see what regulations might be introduced in the future to protect residents from falling prey to criminals leveraging the latest technology while considering the sensitivities of freedom of speech.

The author is a former chief information officer of the Hong Kong government, a PR and media consultant, and a veteran journalist.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.