China is cracking down on deepfakes domestically and benefiting from it abroad.
Deepfake apps by China-based developers have been downloaded by the millions in the US and remain available in app stores even after China introduced tough laws this year regulating deepfake videos on its own internet.
The apps allow Chinese developers to capitalize on data and dollars brought in via America’s largely unregulated tech market while US lawmakers have focused on other targets like TikTok. This review was not extended to other China-based apps, like online marketplaces Shein and Temu, which are popular in the US and other parts of the world.
Deepfakes are manipulated media, often created with artificial intelligence, in which faces, appearances and voices have been altered. Technology has improved in recent years and has been used to create viral videos, some warning of the technology’s ability to create misinformation.
But more than anything, deepfake technology has fueled an online economy focused on creating fake pornography. Sensity, an Amsterdam-based company that detects and monitors AI-engineered synthetic media for industries like banking and fintech, found that 96% of deepfakes are sexually explicit and feature women who didn’t consent to their creation.
An NBC News review of free deepfake apps on Apple’s App Store and Google Play Store found that there are more than 17 deepfake apps available for download from companies around the world, including Russia, Ukraine, the UK, the USA, Italy and China.
Some of the apps reviewed by NBC News, like the popular Cyprus-based FaceApp and the China-based Facee, do not offer features that allow the production of pornographic videos. Such apps are designed to alter images of faces with preset filters. However, other apps specifically market their abilities to create non-consensual deepfake pornography.
One of the China-based apps, FaceMagic, runs sexually explicit ads reading “Create deepfake porn in a second” on the most popular deepfake porn website, according to an NBC News review of ads. It has been downloaded more than 2.4 million times since May 2021, according to data from Apptopia, a company that tracks the app market.
Another China-based deepfake app, FaceMega, was recently removed from the Apple and Google app stores after NBC News discovered that it ran more than 260 ads on Facebook that used Emma Watson’s likeness in a sexually suggestive manner represented.
These apps would almost certainly violate China’s new deepfake rules that went into effect in January. The rules prohibit the creation of deepfakes without the consent of the people whose images are being manipulated, and they require deepfakes to be marked as AI-generated.
The US has no such federal laws, although some states have civil penalties for creating non-consensual porn and deepfakes that constitute political disinformation. Some privacy activists have pushed for new rules on deepfakes, but most politicians have focused on TikTok instead.
“Just as we are far behind in regulating privacy, I think we are still in the early stages of determining what regulation we should have in relation to deepfakes,” said Samir Jain, the director of policy at the Center for Democracy and Technology, a non-profit organization dedicated to digital rights and free speech.
Concerns about foreign access to US user data via apps have condensed around China and TikTok in recent years. Critics of TikTok have argued that it poses a particularly pressing security threat because China could force it to disclose data about its US users.
TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew said at a congressional hearing last month that ByteDance, TikTok’s Chinese parent company, is a private company and not controlled by the Chinese government.
“TikTok has never shared US user data with the Chinese government or received a request for sharing,” he said in prepared remarks. “Nor would TikTok honor such a request if one was ever made.”
China, which says it would “strongly oppose” any forced sale of TikTok in the US, says it takes privacy and security very seriously and that the US has not presented any evidence that TikTok threatens its national security.
“The Chinese government has never and will never ask any company or individual to collect or provide data, information or intelligence located overseas in violation of local laws,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Mao Ning said last month .
A request to the Chinese Embassy in the US was not answered.
Other countries have taken extensive steps to address privacy issues as well as concerns about the proliferation of deepfakes. The European Union has strong privacy rules that it has enforced against many big tech companies, including Amazon, Meta and Google. The EU has also created rules designed to force major tech platforms to restrict the spread of deepfakes.
None has gone as far as China with its recent deepfake rules.
“China, as a hub for AI development, is increasingly trying to export its own vision of what AI governance means,” said Michael Karanicolas, executive director of the UCLA Institute for Technology Law & Policy. “Despite all the focus on Chinese apps disrupting the American economy, China says we need rules for this stuff.”
Mary Anne Franks, law professor and president of the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative, a non-profit group fighting non-consensual pornography, said the commercial model for almost every app operated in the US involves the sale of user data and that these legal vulnerabilities intersect with the legal gray area that allows the deepfake economy to thrive.
Deepfake porn websites are a growing phenomenon of late, with search interest at historically high levels earlier this year.
“If the real power-holders had paid attention to this crisis and expected that one day the technology would stop being crude and indistinguishable, we wouldn’t be in this position,” Franks said.
Franks said there are legitimate complaints about TikTok, as there are for many other apps. Deepfake apps also collect user data that can be shared and sold with anyone.
However, this information is not particularly difficult to find. And banning TikTok wouldn’t change much.
“If China is interested in this information, it can freely buy it on the secondary market,” Karanicolas said. “You can ban an app, but it doesn’t really affect the overall problem.”