Chairman's Desk

Public policy must keep up with advances in deepfake technology

Generative AI represent a threat different from those posed by social media, the internet and other innovations we have failed to adequately legislate

Like any good tourist, U.S. President Joe Biden was only searching for an authentic Canadian experience. And here they are, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and thrill-seeking Joe, white water rafting on the Ottawa River. A six-pack of Canadian dangles over the raft’s edge and Biden’s wearing that trademark toothy grin. Just a couple of buddies enjoying the outdoors. Even the beavers are applauding.

Is it a scene from the latest Monkman? Fantasy or a nightmare? Dream or reality? Can’t tell? Welcome to 2023, ladies and gentlemen.

If you think the image I describe cannot be generated then you haven’t been paying attention to the menace that is deepfake technology.

And here’s your news flash: while we can be amused by the fun such a picture can create, there is nothing funny in the least about its threat to people’s privacy, safety, sanity, and our very way of life.

Some moments in history demand a comprehensive public policy response to extinguish nascent, but dangerous, developments.

We are at that moment.

Make no mistake, the latest advancements in generative AI represent a threat entirely different from those posed by social media, the internet, and other innovations we have failed to adequately legislate over the last two decades.

Case in point. As rumours swirled that Donald Trump was to be arrested in New York this week, hyperrealistic images of him being aggressively detained circulated on social media. They were provocative, jarring, totally fake and precisely the kind of thing that has the potential not only to kick-start a virtual media storm but genuine civil unrest.

These developments also give numerous crimes, including doxing, extortion, and intellectual property theft a frightening upgrade — imperilling the livelihoods of not just politicians or celebrities but all of us.

The bottom line? Canadian institutions must move with urgency, and develop policies that lead, rather than wait, on this critical matter.

While we can’t put the genie back in the bottle, there are important steps that should have been taken yesterday. First, we must enhance our legal framework. Legislation should be clearly amended to criminalize malicious deepfake creation and distribution. Here we should follow Quebec’s lead. Quebec’s Civil Code already provides a remedy for invasion of privacy using a person’s name, image, likeness, or voice, and this concept should be broadly implemented.

Public-private collaboration is paramount. Partnerships between government, tech companies, and academia focused specifically on improving deepfake detection and prevention technologies, will help combat the threat. Internet companies have been using sophisticated AI to combat deepfakes on their platforms for years now. Our government needs to lean on the expertise of the tech sector which, frankly, knows this issue better than they do.

Education is also vital. Implementing digital literacy and public awareness campaigns about deepfakes and their potential consequences will empower Canadians to play an active role in combating them. News and social media sites should be encouraged to implement systems for flagging doctored images that will help users distinguish between genuine and manipulated content.

Finally, we must seek out international co-operation. Shared norms and strategies for combating deepfakes will ensure a more effective and co-ordinated response to the borderless nature of the deepfake threats. By advocating for global standards that address the deepfake challenge, we make it harder for malicious actors to exploit jurisdictional differences to evade consequences. Here Canada can play an important role and, jokes aside, I hope the topic was raised between Biden and Trudeau this week.

Deepfakes underscore the necessity for government intervention during times of great technological change.

Safeguarding our democratic institutions, protecting individual privacy, and maintaining social cohesion are fundamental responsibilities of government. Tackling the deepfake threat is critical to preserving the integrity of our political discourse and building a more secure future for all citizens, so they feel safe not only in their everyday lives but in cyberspace too.

This article first appeared in the Toronto Star on March 26, 2023.