November 3, 2023

AI: An Unstoppable Tool of Child Exploitation

Bad people always seem to use innocuous technology to achieve bad ends.

Several female high school students in Westfield, New Jersey, faced a terrifying situation recently. It was discovered that deepfake nude photos had been created using the girls’ faces and were being circulated amongst their male peers.

The girls noticed a widespread change in the behavior of most of the male students all at once. However, it wasn’t until they started questioning their male friends about the unsettling shift in demeanor before one of the boys finally admitted what was going on.

The images had been traveling from cellphone to cellphone for days at that point.

Naturally, those whose faces were attached to the graphic images felt violated by the incident. Parents of these students expressed anger and deep concerns about the safety and well-being of their children now and in the future.

It is not out of the realm of possibility that these photos made their way outside of the school, and they will likely be accessible in some way forever.

However, high school pranks are only a blip on the radar, where a much broader and more existential threat to children’s health, safety, and privacy exists overall.

The Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) has been focusing heavily on the risks of AI, particularly when it comes to children and teens. Based on what its researchers are seeing now, AI-generated images are essentially an uncontrollable crisis waiting to happen.

The chief executive of the IWF, Susie Hargreaves, offered an alarming message: “Our worst nightmares have come true. Earlier this year, we warned AI imagery could soon become indistinguishable from real pictures of children suffering sexual abuse, and that we could start to see this imagery proliferating in much greater numbers. We have now passed that point.”

Even more frightening is the fact that no one is safe from being targeted and victimized in this way. Researchers have found deepfake images of this type where the likeness of individuals from all walks of life — including celebrities, children, and even infants whose photos had been uploaded to social media accounts, as well as abuse victims who have already been exploited in the online sex industry — have been used to produce this kind of content.

As AI has become a more common part of the public conversation, the question of how to manage it only becomes more uncertain.

The Biden administration has previously announced the intention to start imposing regulations on AI to battle the spread of misinformation and disinformation. Joe Biden signed an executive order to expand his own power over it. His most recent public comments were to bizarrely warn against the development of algorithms within this technology that discriminate based on race.

Those of us operating without the impairment of dementia might make the argument that the uncontrolled abuse of AI to create fake sexually graphic content that appears to include innocent, unsuspecting children and teens is a greater concern at the moment.

The movie “Sound of Freedom” spurred an important conversation about the rapidly growing problem of the child-trafficking industry and exposed the drastic surge in demand for online content, including with minors. But it perhaps left some people with the idea that such abuse only happens to captured victims, whose physical presence is necessary for exploitation to be possible.

However, this can now be considered a debunked idea given the ease with which this material can be generated — as evidenced by the rudimentary skills of a group of mischievous high school boys — without the knowledge of the victims.

In response, we should be able to expect severe, criminal consequences for those who use AI technology for this purpose. There is also room to discuss putting protections in place at the core of its development.

An important point made by a New York Post journalist: “What haunts me, though, is the day AI stops being a tool and starts becoming and agent: roughly, something capable of acting in the world toward its own ends.”

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