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Rising risks as digital clones gain prominence in SA

Sibahle Malinga
By Sibahle Malinga, ITWeb senior news journalist.
Johannesburg, 30 May 2023
Faeeza Khan, head of research at Flux Trends.
Faeeza Khan, head of research at Flux Trends.

As digital clones and virtual ambassadors gain popularity in South Africa, experts warn of new threats posed by the artificial intelligence (AI)-generated beings created for celebrities, business leaders and politicians.

According to trends research firm Flux Trends, the ability of AI to recreate, manipulate and reuse − in different ways − currently existing audio, photos and videos to create digital clones, presents both an opportunity and a threat for many industries in SA.

Digital cloning is an emerging technology that involves deep-learning algorithms, used in the creation of a digital version of a person in the form of an image, an avatar, video or audio of a person, according to Wikipedia.

Models, artists and celebrities are embracing this technology to create hyper-realistic digital versions of themselves to establish additional sources of income, while maintaining the legal rights and control of their clones, according to Flux Trends.

However, the resultant hyper-realistic videos and photos make it difficult for the human eye to distinguish what is real and what is fake.

Flux Trends researcher and trend-spotter Faeeza Khan explains: “The advent of AI has brought with it numerous challenges for artists, celebrities, models and business people, who are now at risk of being impersonated in the digital realm, often without recompense.

“It’s already happening in South Africa and will continue to become problematic. We’ve already seen the case of the fake video, where president Cyril Ramaphosa spoke of a plan to tear down Voortrekker Monument and Loftus.”

While deepfakes (videos) can be used to facilitate imposter scams, digital clones are the virtual version of a human being, also known as a digital twin. Both can be used to manipulate and impersonate the acts of a human being.

According to Khan, more public figures are now partnering with tech companies to develop and exert some control over their digital likeness and make money from it. For example, supermodel Eva Herzigová now has a digital likeness, her “metahuman”, to be used for virtual fashion shows and modelling digital clothes.

Businesses are also increasingly setting up virtual ambassadors to promote products on social media, Khan notes.

“This is a business model where AI is being embraced. It is a business model that South African artists are keen to adopt as it represents a different income stream to the work they do in real life.

“However, wrongdoers are able to mimic the voice or digital clone of someone, for example, which can be used for nefarious purposes, as was the case when a voice deepfake was used to spoof a German CEO and scam the company out of $243 000.

“The potential for misinformation and fraud this technology presents is vast and we are just starting to see the extent of it.”

With various companies making such technologies available to the public, businesses should invest in cyber security safeguards, such as voice authentication systems that can detect anomalies and potential cloning attempts, she advises.

“Businesses need to establish authenticity in a world of increasingly sophisticated deepfakes, where a customer or an employee can be impersonated. Educate employees and customers about the existence and potential risks of voice cloning technology and implement robust authentication processes that go beyond voice-based verification alone.

“Multi-factor authentication, such as combining voice recognition with additional authentication factors like passwords, biometrics, or security questions, can enhance security and minimise the risk of unauthorised access.”


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