Sextortion, FBI
Image created with AI. Photo credit: Raphaël Jeanneret. & Guillaume Mona / Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

The FBI says there has been an “uptick” in reports of manipulated images being used to blackmail internet users. Here’s what you can do to protect yourself and your children.

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Late last month, dozens of experts offered a dire warning about the rise of artificial intelligence (AI) and the existential threat it poses to humanity in the future. Last week, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) issued a different kind of AI-related alert — this one about a threat it poses to individuals right now… a threat that will feel just as existential to them.

Specifically, the bureau is warning Americans about “sextortion.”

That is the crime of manipulating benign images, such as photos or videos an individual has posted on their social media pages, to make them look like pornographic materials. That bogus content, also known as “deepfakes,” is then circulated online, for example on social media or pornographic websites, for the purpose of harassing victims or extorting them.

In a Public Service Announcement, the FBI stated that it keeps receiving reports from victims of this type of sextortion.

“Many victims, which have included minors, are unaware their images were copied, manipulated, and circulated until it was brought to their attention by someone else,” the FBI said. “The photos are then sent directly to the victims by malicious actors for sextortion or harassment, or until it was self-discovered on the internet. Once circulated, victims can face significant challenges in preventing the continual sharing of the manipulated content or removal from the internet.”

The bureau noted that it has “observed an uptick” in victims who reported that content they had either posted themselves or provided to third parties was used to create fake images or videos.

Once the victims are made aware of these deepfakes, they are asked to either pay the extorters or to send them real pornographic images of themselves.

How to Prevent Sextortion

So how do you protect yourself from this crime?

The FBI recommends that Americans use their privacy settings to limit who can see their photos and videos. Furthermore, individuals should exercise caution when posting any material online, including in direct messages.

“Although seemingly innocuous when posted or shared, the images and videos can provide malicious actors an abundant supply of content to exploit for criminal activity,” the bureau said. “Advancements in content creation technology and accessible personal images online present new opportunities for malicious actors to find and target victims. This leaves them vulnerable to embarrassment, harassment, extortion, financial loss, or continued long-term re-victimization.”

Because criminals also target minors, the FBI recommends that parents talk to their kids about the risk of sharing personal information as well as photos and videos.

In addition, the bureau suggests that people frequently conduct online searches for themselves and their children to find out if that information is being spread online without their knowledge.

Ultimately, there is no better protection than exercising common sense, and it is better to be safe than sorry.

“Once content is shared on the internet, it can be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to remove once it is circulated or posted by other parties,” the FBI warned.


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