No legal recourse for modern, technological crimes
The seemingly limitless capabilities of various technological advances are both positive and negative. With new opportunities, it’s unfortunately possible to commit more harmful actions, including those that might legitimately be construed as crimes.
Certainly, by general consensus, they can be objectionable, but not offend the letter of the law.
Technology is in fact evolving faster than the law, often leaving populations or individuals vulnerable. In some regards, there is no legal recourse against ‘criminal’ actions.
Understandably, the law reflects contemporary requirements. Owing to discrepancies between the unprecedented advancement of technology, and the deliberately slow passage of laws as bills, the evolution of one is out-pacing the other. This concept is far from novel – the Magna Carta is unsurprisingly devoid of regulations governing modern weapons, vehicles, or even food products. They’ve never been a predictive or all-encompassing tool.
The issue here is the intensely rapid advancement of technology, overtaking legal processes, and our collective societal wisdom.
Which laws govern ‘deepfakes’?
Personally, this has been one of the most worrying new developments, and is closely linked to ‘revenge porn’.
‘Deepfakes’, so-called as a combination of ‘deep learning’ and ‘fake’, refers to digitally altered images or voice recordings where an individual is superimposed onto artificially-generated footage in a hyper-realistic fashion. Essentially, aided by machine learning algorithms, edited clips can be manipulated to exhibit a person performing actions they never completed, saying things they never said.
Needless to say, the potentially dangerous ramifications are extensive, especially alongside growing susceptibility to ‘fake news’.
When originating in 2017, its first iterations seemed harmless, producing face-swapping apps still around today. However, it quickly became a tool by which hobbyists manufactured apparently-legitimate images of female celebrities’ faces on the bodies of adult film stars. Through wider applications of this technique, deepfake technology has been linked to ‘revenge porn’. Both involve the illegal distribution of sexual images without that person’s consent.
The latter, revenge porn, has been illegal in England and Wales since 2015. Though an expert panel informed the government that laws regarding this criminal practise are inadequate, they at least exist.
Despite the movement gradually gaining more attention, there is presently no law against non-consensual deepfake pornography. This technology has evidently evolved faster than the legal system, now perfectly capable of producing devastatingly ruinous images of innocent victims.
Since December 2018, somewhere between 90-95% of online deepfake videos are non-consensual pornography, of which a further 90% are women, occasionally including underage girls.
Though there are some interesting uses to this technology, mainly in satire, it has unfortunately been employed in serious crimes against victims with no legal recourse.
It has the ability to attack vulnerable individuals, using content freely available online. In some instances, this might be used to deliberately spread disinformation. One such video was posted during the US campaign trail last year, purporting to be Joe Biden falling asleep in a live interview. It was even tweeted from the personal account of Trump’s social media advisor.
Whilst it was quickly flagged and removed, and allegedly intended for satiric purposes by its creator, it fuelled the ‘sleepy Joe’ narrative of Biden being unfit for office, which might have influenced some people’s real votes.
Regardless of it being a crime in itself by reasonable common sense, deepfake content is a terrifying weapon in deception and fraud.
Technology invites viral misinformation with no legal recourse
I’ve addressed this topic a couple of times on this site, but find it’s no less important. Critically, it’s very easy to deliberately promote inaccurate and misleading information, which might then be widely disseminated. Often, it’s under the guise of being a trustworthy source.
There’s no immediate solution. Ideally, freely expressed opinions will never actually be governed from existence (excepting, of course, items like hate speech).
It is an ongoing problem, and has resulted in seismic, real-world shifts and ‘offline violence’.
The extent to which social media platforms regulate themselves, where much of this disinformation spreads, is improving. Claims relating to COVID-19, or the recent US election, were typically accompanied by links to genuinely reliable sources. Several, notorious liars also found their accounts disabled, limiting their audience. In August 2019, most major social media platforms even vowed to combat deepfake videos.
One attempt by the Australian government to monitor disinformation involved introducing a bill that, alongside other measures, imposed a tax on the sharing of news items. Whilst this briefly resulted in Facebook banning all Australian users from the platform, the company backed down, eventually accepting the new law.
One tech-expert and former-Facebook boss took issue with the regulation, however, suggesting it would be impossible to enforce, and likely cripple regional news providers over hindering either Facebook or Google. Their suggestion was to, instead, attempt a major break-up of the tech giants.
Either way, the challenge of disinformation has not been resolved. In an ever-more virtual world, it becomes an only more important focus, too. Most shockingly, there has been a reportedly worrying trend in young people becoming incorporated with terror groups, partially as a result of over-exposure of harmful, misleading material on social media.
In this instance, as with deepfakes, the technology is not inherently bad. There are many associated positives improving different opportunities, especially increasing connectivity. The fundamental issue is instead that criminal abuses are not currently regulated by official laws. There needs to be an appropriate penalty for committing acts that deliberately harm. That there are still none demonstrates how worryingly fast technology can advance, relative to our ability to govern its responsible uses.
Can social media be regulated? Having posted previously on potentially regulating social media platforms, I felt this topic required updating, not least owing to some drastic changes. To be unequivocally plain: social media is dangerous. It poses a very real threat, both on an individual, and global scale. Our existing relationship with social media is… Continue Reading →
ILOVEYOU – the most horrifying words one can say
One fantastic example illustrating how inadequate laws can be compared to technological capabilities is not recent.
In 2000, Onel de Guzman, a college student in Manila, created the commonly-nicknamed ‘Love bug’. A piece of malware programmed to overwrite random types of files when executed, initially to steal passwords, when access to the internet was not free. Strictly speaking, Guzman’s actions should have been victimless, and by definition, were not a crime.
The exact mechanics of this software are not so interesting to me, but if you are invested, Wikipedia seems to do a pretty good job on it (none of these links are dangerous, don’t worry).
What is more compelling to me is the story of the direct impact. Having been oblivious to this incident most of my life, it was pretty shocking. Guzman emailed this .vbs file which, in addition to overwriting data, would also access the user’s contact book and send itself on, thus becoming a self-replicating ‘worm’, quickly spreading worldwide.
Most remarkable was that, given the intriguing nature of the message, ‘LOVE-LETTER-FOR-YOU’, and the natural compulsion to check the contents, combined with the .txt giving false assurances that it was safe, this worm spread to an estimated 10% of internet-connected computers in the world. An unbelievable number. Additionally, several large corporations, alongside the CIA, Pentagon and British Parliament, completely shut down their mail systems. With an estimated US$5.5-8.7billion in damages inflicted, it also required US$10-15billion to remove the worm.
Onel de Guzman managed to inflict immense damage. Though he was detained, alongside potential co-conspirator Reonnel Ramones, they were never ultimately prosecuted. No definitive legislation existed with which to charge them, since nothing specifically prohibited writing malware.
This incident resulted in the Philippine Congress enacted Republic Act No. 8792, or the new E-Commerce Law. Nations like the US had attempted to secure extradition for Guzman to prosecute him, but found no legal grounds unable to by the fact that he had not technically committed a crime.
In the immediate aftermath, this incident must have felt devastating to those affected. Now, it’s a tentative reminder that we can destroy ourselves a lot sooner than we can build.
Technology can evolve faster than the law
Whilst our sense of right and wrong may be intuitive, the actual laws governing our society take considerably longer to be articulated. Technology does not have these same restrictions, and can experience major developments rapidly.
Far from being a detriment to our lives, the high-minded intentions almost always result in at least some benefit to our existence, thanks to technology.
Too often, accompanying negatives persist. As indicated, we have far more capacity to ruin people’s lives, often with no formal directives to prevent it.
There needs to be some method of restitution for victims where currently there is none.
Feature image courtesy of Unsplash, via Hamza Nouasria.
Thanks for reading! What are your thoughts on the current progression of technology? If you found this interesting, I regularly post other social commentaries, alongside travel posts or short stories, so explore more!
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