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'Tip of the iceberg': AI deepfakes on the rise in Alberta as police warn parents to stay vigilant

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As artificial intelligence (AI) continues to develop and become more accessible, law enforcement and other crime agencies, including those in Alberta, are warning about the rapid rise of deepfakes involving sexually explicit images and videos of children.

Deepfakes are videos, images or audio recordings that can look and sound realistic but have been generated or altered using AI technology.

Cybertip.ca, a Canadian tip line for reporting the online sexual exploitation and abuse of children, has processed close to 4,000 sexually explicit deepfake images and videos of children and youth in the past year across the country.

Alberta’s Internet Child Exploitation (ICE) Unit, under the Alberta Law Enforcement Response Teams (ALERT), says the issue is prevalent and growing across the province.

“It’s just the tip of the iceberg of what we’re starting to see,” said Cst. Heather Bangle with the ICE Unit.

“I don’t think we’ve even begun to see how much damage this is going to do but it is very significant when it comes to child safety and internet child exploitation because of the capabilities, and the easy access, and just how easy it is to create these things.”

Bangle says she’s investigated cases where classmates have used the technology to make pornographic images of another student, but says the major concern is the growing reports of scammers using AI-generated images to “sextort” youth online, for money or other sexual images.

“It’s literally like a pandemic of sextortion,” she said. “It’s definitely going to make our work harder because we could triple the size of our unit and still be busy.”

Deepfakes fall under child pornography laws including the production and distribution of child sexual abuse material, but Bangle says investigating these incidents is challenging because most of the offenders are not in Canada, with many originating out of West Africa.

“I know of a few cases now where the child swears they did not send an intimate image,” she said. “This is that child’s whole world. Even if it’s not them in the photo just the idea, the humiliation, and trying to explain, ‘that’s not me.’”

The Canadian Centre for Child Protection (C3P) says the issue is rampant across the country with increased reports year-over-year and is now advocating for increased rules around AI technologies and companies.

“We are pushing for these companies to be regulated,” said Signy Arnason with C3P. “There just has to be more standards put in place around how potentially damaging some of these technologies are.”

The impact on teens is severe, with many of these images and videos being circulated to friends or family, but they can also end up on the dark web and adult pornography sites.

“There are serious traumatic repercussions for the impacted teen that this has been done do, including anxiety and depression and all sorts of things we’re seeing, so we need people to take this more seriously,” Arnason said.

How to protect yourself, your kids

There are several ways parents, teachers and children can protect themselves from sextortion involving AI deepfakes, with the most repeated advice: get informed.

“First off, have the conversation with your kids. Understand the consequences of putting and sharing photos online,” said Tara Robinson with YouthLink Calgary Police Interpretative Centre.

“Create a space where your kids feel safe talking about this.”

Parents are encouraged to share a device with their child, have strong passwords and two-step authentication, and ensure their privacy settings are set up on every single app on a device.

“Most of the criminals are getting access to your children through that technology, through direct messaging, through gaming. They have access to your kids,” said Robinson.

She says parents should also think twice about sharing images or videos of their children online.

“If you share any photo in any public arena you can guarantee there is someone using those photos for … not good purposes,” Robinson said.

“If you’re sharing photos of your child in a bathtub, just imagine. Just imagine if you don’t have those privacy settings on just imagine who has access to those and what they are doing with those photos. Parents sometimes don’t have a clue about the dangers or even what their kids are doing online.”

Robinson says it’s also important for families to stay vigilant and informed as technology evolves.

“What we teach youth and parents may change today and may change in three months, because it is changing so rapidly.”

YouthLink offers programs to both youth and parents about online and social media risks and how to protect themselves against online predators.

The Canadian Centre for Child Protection also offer free online safety lessons for Grades Three to Eight and Nine to 12 and has safety resources available for parents.

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