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BBC documentary used face-swapping AI to hide protesters' identities (newscientist.com)
155 points by lnguyen on Nov 24, 2022 | hide | past | favorite | 90 comments

The documentary is available on iPlayer¹; You may need to be in the UK or have an IP that at least looks that way to see it :/

It immediately made me think of Channel 4's alternative Christmas message from 2020². While the technique is obviously different between the two, the step change in quality feels immense to me. Channel 4's was a few minute long heavily staged piece that didn't hold up to close scrutiny in my eyes, and the BBC's far more convincing example is applied to — I'll trust — somewhat organic recordings of multiple people.

Edit to add: I attempt to draw the connection here because we're talking about relatively cheap broadcast television and not $500,000,000 movies.

¹ https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/m001f7t5/hong-kongs-fi...

² https://www.channel4.com/press/news/deepfake-queen-deliver-c...

> The documentary is available on iPlayer¹; You may need to be in the UK or have an IP that at least looks that way to see it :/

I watched and recall these events very well as I saw them unfold in real time; to be honest the AI filter is rather notable and is really no better than the home-brew deepfake stuff you've seen, to be honest. What that means is that the masses have access to tools that are sophisticated as the MSM platforms, which is in itself remarkable how quickly the barrier of entry has been made for building with these tools.

It's a good watch and should be on people's watchlist amongst other doumcaraies like 'Revolution of Our Times' [0] and 'Faceless' [1] which both use the low-tech masks that achieve the same end. Some have said it's a gimmick, which I partly agree, but what it does is serve to re-enforce the fact that these surveillance tools can and should be thwarted using some basic understanding of OPSEC and pre-caution: they didn't mention that the HK Police and CCP gathered a ton of data from the use of data tracking from publicly accessed information when protestors were taking the underground to get to and from protests and were tracked down for violating NSL later on in 2020-22 when the arrests came down and everone from activists to politicians and even media tycoon like Jimmy Lai were taken down with fake charges.

It's sad state of affairs, but it's a reminder of how quickly an affluent, well educated Society can come under the yoke of tyranny and lose decades of progress due the expansion of authoritarianism and should serve as a reminder of why 'this matters' despite it being an unpleasant aspect of 'civic duty.'

0: https://www.hkdc.us/revolution-of-our-times 1: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j5YKKPizQi8

Another interesting example of face swapping is DeepPrivacy. [1]

Example of it used by Benn Jordan (aka, The Flashbulb) [2]

1. https://github.com/hukkelas/DeepPrivacy

2. https://youtu.be/ibZNByVdH0E?t=551

It says in the article that the faces are swapped with those of actors. Are those something like film actors? Because that would actually be amazing, completely dodging the drawback several commenters here have mentioned that faces of innocent people could be used.

Actors faces are already public. Then again,I would probably be pissed when my face would be used as a mask to say something I might not agree with. Interesting question if that is ethical or not.

Using actors in news stories is pretty standard when the interviewee does not want to appear on camera, or use their own voice.

There's a long history of this kind of masking:

- Backlighting, with the face in deep shadow. Possibly with the original interviewee or an actor.

- Voice-Masking with some kind of voice-changer

- Using a voice-actor to say the words.

I would see this as the next evolution of this process.

So long as The actor being portrayed has given their consent to do this (they were hired for this specific job), and the facial expressions/behaviors are genuinely recreated I don't see any ethical or moral issues.

> Interesting question if that is ethical or not.

It's likely not ethical, and I'm confident it's probably illegal. For example, can you setup a billboard at the side of a highway with Tom Hank's face on it and a quote that speaks to anti-trans rights, has a homophobic remark, or perhaps an anti-CCP statement? Probably not.

I'd say this is no different.

I didn’t see anything indicating whether or not the actors had licensed their likeness for this use. Wouldn’t that matter?

It probably would, yeah. And I would imagine the BBC would have such (concrete) agreements in place, for sure.

It depends on the country.

IANAL, but in the US you'd need (a) rights to the image being used (e.g. shot yourself, in public) & (b) a damn good argument that your juxtaposition of their likeness and your words doesn't cause them monetary damages (e.g. in the form of lost revenue from reputation).

>IANAL, but in the US you'd need (a) rights to the image being used (e.g. shot yourself, in public) & (b) a damn good argument that your juxtaposition of their likeness and your words doesn't cause them monetary damages (e.g. in the form of lost revenue from reputation).

Well... "need" is, as I often say, quite a strong word.

Might makes right, and money talks, so if you don't want to bother getting the rights, or the person who you want to exploit can't fight back, why not?

Because anyone you want to exploit by definition either has enough money or visibility to avail themselves of legal redress?

This seems to have a glaring flaw in that a fake AI generated person could have a real-world doppelganger, which a tyrannical government could mistakenly arrest, or worse.

A real person can also have a real-world doppelganger. In fact, isn't this just as likely as an AI generated person having one, maybe even more? So doing this swap didn't really change anything when it comes to "innocent" people getting targeted?

It's a novel approach, but like you've said I think the potential negatives far outweighs the positives. Perhaps they could use obviously fake faces with weird proportions and features?

Idk, this seems like a case of using cool flashy tech because it's cool and flashy and not because it's better than the alternative (using an actor to portray the subject, blurring or blacking out the subject's face).

With face recognition software and automated edits they could run any protest footage from autocratic regimes like Iran or China through a filter to obscure everyone's face and replace it with an AI generated one. All it would cost them is a few extra minutes of editing time, I'm not sure if that would be critical in the news business where there's a lot of time pressure.

I think that would be a really cool feature that could help keep protesters safe. Dissidents could send footage to trustworthy outlets who would only make public the edited footage. Because of course people still want to share the event with the world, but they might not want to be identified in a place where if caught they get tortured, raped or even killed.

The individual face isn't really important most of the time, it's not like it makes a difference to the viewer. They could still give the unedited footage too police in places with legitimate rule of law if the government has a court order and can prove a crime was committed by an individual they have on tape.

I think that would be a really helpful feature to convince Regular Joe what there are protests today in checks notes Eastasia.

Seems like a publicity stunt.

A face covering would cost nothing and achieve the end goal of hiding their identity.

This solves multiple goals: hide identity, show anon-source exists, and show facial emotions to viewers.

The latter is a huge win for making media people want to watch. Same reason all those cable stations segment the screen into four with a face in each corner, or why streamers overlay their gaming with a their face on a webcam. We like faces.

> The latter is a huge win for making media people want to watch.

I get that people like faces, but the news should be real. Maybe I'm expecting too much of the BBC, but it seems pretty short-sighted to start carrying fake news, even if they are only starting with a fake face.

I guess you're right, but if it's on the news, shouldn't we expect factual data rather than "a pageant" as De Niro repeated in "Wag the Dog"?

But since it's publicly known that the faces are fake, the government isn't going to try to use them to identify anyone.

A "glaring flaw" because of some extreme and unlikely scenario?

Why would governments be using AI modified content to look for people to arrest? Is this really a serious risk to dissuade using it? Seems pretty unlikely that it simultaneously a) exclusively be used as the source + b) actually matches someone IRL.

The USA itself put out a nationwide manhunt, distributing video to news outlets, asking the public to assist in identifying protesters whose only known alleged crime was trespassing.

If you look at the J6 convictions it is for far more than trespassing. Interrupting the electoral college count turns out to be a pretty big deal.

China, North Korea, and Iran also have excuses for how they treat their dissidents.

This is more than just dissent, though. I don’t think there’s a country in the world which wouldn’t criminalize active interference with its political process.

Not many people heard about the sitch in Phoenix after the Dobbs decision, but security forces found it necessary to barricade the State Capitol with concrete walls as pro-abortion protesters began to plot and lay siege to the Legislature inside.

That battle hasn't ended, either; it's been taken to the Crisis Pregnancy Centers, but I simply remind people: if you're up-in-arms about J6, insurrection is a two-way street and knows no Right nor Left.

> Why would governments be using this content to look for people to arrest?

Why wouldn't oppressive regimes that are arresting dissidents review footage of dissidents that makes them look bad? Harassing reporters and their sources is a very common way to suppress information.

Scientology does it, why wouldn't a government? https://www.forbes.com/sites/richardbehar/2020/08/05/sciento...

> Why wouldn't oppressive regimes that are arresting dissidents review footage of dissidents that makes them look bad?

Because the faces aren’t real? They want to arrest dissidents not random people.

> Because the faces aren’t real? They want to arrest dissidents not random people.

How can you tell? The entire point of the GP's comment is that they could be mistaken.


This ignores how information spreads. Given how unlikely a randomly generated face will match a relevant person in a local area related to the protest or gov, that means the AI technology will also be widespread (otherwise it’s statically a non-problem because it will be significantly even more unlikely to happen IRL).

If it is widespread then the government workers doing facial recognition should be keenly aware of its existence and adapt by seeking photos from non-activist/protected sources… like the thousands of photos posted on social media after every protest.

The bad government doesn’t want to be arresting random people either they want the real ones.

FWIW I agree. We are dangerously close to living in a world where you cannot trust any videos, pictures, or audio.

I just think that this approach is perhaps more 'cool' than it is useful, it makes me think of Mr. Swirl[0] who got caught because of a fancy effect. Is face-swapping an actor's face really better than just using the actor outright?

[0] https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christopher_Paul_Neil

> How can you tell?

They literally say so in the documentary.

That doesn't stop clips from this or future videos that use this technique from being taken out of context.

Are you serious?

This is standard practice by security forces of any dictatorship.

A standard practice to use... potentially AI modified surveillance photography? Where will they get these photos from exactly in this future scenario? Activists and journalists when these photo apps become widespread (unbeknownst to the government)?

It's an interesting hypothetical for sure but it's stretch to call it a glaring flaw. Not really any worse than people being misidentified in normal photos.

Are we sure this has a greater chance of happening than the alternative (you present the voice a transcript or robotic voice and the government arrests a random person they thought it may be linked to anywas)

Especially since these are generated based on training data from real humans…

It's not even AI generated faces!

They claim that they face swapped real interviews of participants with actors instead of just having the actors perform the piece....

What if you used the faces of that tyrannical government's leadership?

Wow, that's cool! For years I've been wondering about all the places my face must have ended up with all the crowdshots people like to take at busy train stations and such; now, I see a way for this issue to become unnecessary as there could be cameras that just replace unnecessary faces. Paving the road to the future!

Why even bother with this? I understand to preserve facial expressions, but why not fully use actors or sacrifice “the art” of it all and hide the faces completely. This opens up the possibility of reversing the inference of the face-swapping AI and generating the original face.

I’m not sure how you’d reverse the face swapping process since it’s not a one-to-one function. It’s a many-to-many function. If they mapped everyone’s face to e.g. a player on the Miami Heat there’d be no way to reverse it.

Does it really protect identity? Aren't swapped faces mapped to the same landmarks that would be used for facial recognition and could just as easily be extracted?

Reminds me of the scramble suit in A Scanner Darkly.

"an artificial intelligence was used" this is weird phrasing? Why "an" is that normal?

> "an artificial intelligence was used" this is weird phrasing? Why "an" is that normal?

Yes, it's typical syntax in the English language to separate vowels in that manner. English has lots of very little foibles like this (Y is sometimes a vowel) that you would be privy to unless you're a native speaker, so I can understand why you'd be confused, take a look here [0] for more info.

0: https://linguistics.stackexchange.com/questions/12798/why-is...

I think OP was not asking why we have the 'n' inserted, but why we are using an article at all, instead of 'an artificial intelligence' why not just 'artificial intelligence was used', after all, 'intelligence' is not normally a count noun.

Looking at OP's post history, I doubt they're confused about using 'an' vs 'a'.

In short, I think the use of 'an' here means it's a single specifically trained AI. It would not be wrong to say 'artificial intelligence was used' though, it just doesn't highlight the dedicated nature of the AI used.

Similar difference to 'Someone swapped the faces' and 'An expert swapped the faces'.

Sorry, I should have been a bit clearer what I was questioning.

This makes absolutely no sense.

If you wanted anonymity and were willing to go to these lengths, then the face could be fully fictitious and AI generated. Thereby placing no one in fear of government retribution.

This only makes sense if you filmed actors and wanted to cover that glaring mistake in your propaganda, because you lack the necessary talent to actually render them with AI.

I don't buy it. Not a fan of authoritarian regimes, but this stinks.

> This only makes sense if you filmed actors and wanted to cover that glaring mistake in your propaganda, because you lack the necessary talent to actually render them with AI.

Can you elaborate what you mean by this? I don't understand how you're concluding that this only makes sense if it's to cover up propaganda. Using actors as surrogates to protect people is a common practice, and this is a logical step forward (albeit one I disagree with).

Read my comment again.

This press release only makes any sense if they intend to preemptively combat investigations which show that these are actors and not the people that they claim.

I read your comment several times before replying; it still doesn't make sense.

> This press release only makes any sense if they intend to preemptively combat investigations which show that these are actors and not the people that they claim.

That assumes that there was a pretense that the people and identies are real. Documentaries and exposés commonly use methods to protect their subject's identities, including using actors and distorting the face/voice.

What happens if the fake looks like a real person.

Same as what would happen if a real person looked like another real person, I presume.

Until one is made aware that the faces are all fictional, then it becomes very hard to justify any investigation into any particular face.

How likely is a match anyway? My impression is that even with large databases, faces are different enough to not be overwhelmed by hits. But then it's not as if I've used these systems so I don't know.

One step they could take is make one or more properties subtly different so that it definitely matches virtually nobody (plus then all the other features one can randomize).

Our civilization already has trouble agreeing on facts. And this is another step to further blur that.

The article has positive things to say about protecting protestors, but I see a tool used to blatantly manufacture facts.

Might as well make it obviously fake, or be honest about how this is art. Otherwise, it’s propoganda, whether as a tool for establishment or as a tool for activists.

what an interesting use of this technology.



Tthis works the same way any journalism works which is that you negotiate with you sources how they want to be identified and what precautions you'll take to protect their identity. The BBC doesn't interview a bunch of people and then go "I think you can go get abducted by the Chinese state, but you we'll protect", they negotiate up front what they'll record, and the conditions under which it's released.

Sounds good in theory, and with individual interviews that is easy enough. But coverage of protests will likely include masses of people, in public and therefore with no expectation of privacy. So how is the decision made on which masses of protestors in public get their ID obfuscated, and which don't?

There is no point in giving good faith explanations in reply to rhetoric that wasn't good faith and seeking understanding in the first place, just pushing a particular narrative. I refer you to the sibling comment, which fully understands this.

Hey fascist, get fucked

Can anyone provide an alternative source please? I've done a quick search and can't find any other sources reporting on this apart from 2x New Scientist links which are both pay-walled (as is the single Internet Archive submission) so my b.s detector is in the red on this one.

If in fact the BBC did do this (and that's a BIG if) that would be a huge story and a major breach of the BBC's editorial policies.

...so my b.s detector is in the red on this one

Why? A 2020 documentary called Welcome to Chechnya looked at repression of LGBT Chechens and was the first documentary to use "advanced facial replacement techniques using artificial intelligence and novel visual effects technology so the viewer could see real faces displaying real emotions while still protecting the identities of the speakers" [1]

The documentary was released by HBO Films. The BBC also broadcast the documentary.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Welcome_to_Chechnya

Thank you for pointing out this precedent in this use of face-swapping - it's a great idea, and (together with the OP link about Hong Kong protestors) changes my understanding of the threat/value of face-swapping technology.

1. The New Scientist is a respectable science magazine from the UK, there's no reason not to believe the story.

2. I think you have misunderstood what they did. People often request that their identities are hidden when they are interviewed by news organizations. This is usually done by filming them in silhouette, and sometimes altering their voices. This is no different, except that the AI "mask" gives the viewer a different face to look at. It's not controversial or a breach of any policies.

I watched the documentary.

It was very upfront about it.

And it's weird because you really couldn't tell (except one of the guys looked blind, pretty sure I'm not just being racist as he didn't look like that at other times)

They often hide interviewees faces; this is just a different method. As long as they disclosed this fact, I don't see what the problem is.

Personally I'd prefer other ways of hiding identities, then you'd know. You couldn't tell that they'd done it, and I'd infer that as some people were politicians their faces weren't changed.

It seems consistent with their policies regarding anonymity and safety.

News reports already have voice alterations, silhouetting and "Name has been altered", if they used face-swapping but put a big fat disclaimer on the screen, would that be a problem?

Why are we still wasting time on this? Hong Kong has been lost. China won. Democracy in HK is dead.

The actions of these freedom protesters are moot and useless. There's no sense reporting on their endeavors as the outcome is clear cut. Most of them will eventually end up in jail, dead or will have fled to the West.

You're saying we shouldn't bother looking at history because one side wasn't successful? I don't get this argument.

Why West can promote separatists, terrorists and internal divisions with zero consequences? If Texas had a separatist movement that wanted to start a civil war to secede from the United States do you think it wouldn't be crushed?

The United Kingdom is the worst offender in this, they violently repressed any revolutionary attempt in their colonies.

Honk Kong is a chinese teritory, end of story. Like Texas, or the city of London. If those regions started violent protest to independize, they would be repressed. End of story. Shame on the West for such blatant imperialist attempt at meddling with chinese internal affairs.

You said "The United Kingdom is the worst offender in this, they violently repressed any revolutionary attempt in their colonies."

And they you said it is fine that China does it?

Hong Kong is more like Puerto Rico than like Texas. However, people from Hong Kong don't want to live under the ccp, while Puerto Ricans complain they arent better integrated to the US.

Go figure.

China has not reached the level of brutality that the british inflicred upon the world, not by far.

But there is also a key difference: Honk Kong is China. China didn't invade Honk Kong, is not a colony, is simply another chinese region.

What bussiness did the british have in India? Would you consider India a "legitimate" british territory, or a colony? Same with Puerto Rico, it is a colony, what bussiness does the USA have in Puerto Rico? Is not part of their natural geographical territory, they are simply colonies. The same cannot be said about Honk Kong. Is as chinese as Alaska is american or the Canary islands are Spanish and so on.

The british and american media are promoting independentism, terrorism and civil war to cause internal conflict in peaceful nations. That has always been their strategy when they cannot subjugate a nation by force. Promote conflict, war, divisions, invent excuses to invade, to boycott, to embargo. Blame others of what you do.

This is simply imperialism against China. Honk Kong is chinese territory, plain and simple, and western nationd have no bussiness promoting civil wars or independentism in foreign nations. This is not the 19 and 20th century anymore. Colonialism and imperialism are simply unnaceptable.

Yes, colonialism was bad. It should not have happened. We should not let it happen again.

In general, we shouldn't be suppressing people. When a nation needs to use violence to force a region to come/remain within its union, without even a fair vote, that nation is on the bad side of history in my eyes.

And yes, my country has engaged in such misbehavior as recently as 60 years ago. I'm sorry on behalf of my country. Let's never do that again.

Why do you assume that every country wants to colonize and subjugate the world, like the British did, and the USA has done during the 20th century? Yeah, let's stop Western hegemony, and the only way to do that is to have a multipolar world. There should not be a single country (or group of countries, such as NATO and its allies) that controls the entire world and imposes its will with an iron fist, bombing, invading, and assassinating whoever they want.China is a new force in the world, a force for good that actually doesn't invade or bomb other countries, that improves the lives of billions of their own citizens, and that is trying to build relationships of mutual benefit with Africa, Asia, and South America.

In psychology, there is a term where you blame others for what you do; it is called projection. The West should stop projecting its own imperialism onto others.

If imperialism and colonialism are wrong maybe China should stop doing it in Africa and South East Asia.

What imperialism, what colonialism are you talking about? Investing in infrastructure, roads, railroads, schools and commerce that benefits the lives of millions in a continent that was savaged by European powers? Europeans only brought wars, bombs, genocide, enslavement and pillage to Africa. China brings railroads and commerce that increase the standard of living. How can westerners be so blind to the fact that they are the problem and that other countries want to have mutually beneficial relationships with them rather than invade and enslave their people?

Please locate Honk Kong in a map. Tell me in what world Honk Kong is comparable in any way to Puerto Rico or some random british colony

they're self-governed but rely on a super power for protection, what do i win?

Two wrongs don't make one right. While your first two paragraphs are correct your conclusion is totally bonkers.

There is only one wrong, which is the story of western nations (the british mainly, but all of Europe to a lesser extent) and non western (Japan) colonizing, invading, and exploiting China as a colony. Honk Kong was taken from China and only restituted in 1997. That the BBC, the main promoter of british colonialism talks about the honk kong protests as if they were some "heroic" people, is just imperialism in the 21th Century. Plain and simple. Is disgusting. The british invaded and subjugated the chinese for centuries, took their land from them, and now they have the nerve to try and stir internal rebellions? Are you so deep into imperialist ideology that you cannot see what this is? China has absolute right to govern over their lawful territories, which include Honk Kong and Macao. Western powers cannot continue exercising imperialism in the 21th century.

This is absolutely disgusting. If China was trying to incite rebellions in british territories, promoting the views and opinions of independentist terrorists, what would be your opinion? What would be the opinion of "the media"?

Is simply disgusting, plain and simple imperialism.

In your opinion, do nations have the irrevocable right to rule over every region they once possessed? Even if the region's population doesn't want it to? And what if the region has, during an important part of its history, been an independent state? Where do you draw the 'disgusting imperialism' line?

> That the BBC, the main promoter of british colonialism...

I take it you don't actually watch any BBC output, then?

What is this piece of "news" but pure and unashamed imperialism against a british former colony?

You haven't really picked the best example here, because in the last decade the UK literally gave Scotland a referendum on leaving the union. So yes, the UK does support a right to self-determination, even for integral parts of their territory. It's also worth noting that in response to China's moves in HK hundreds of thousands of HK residents have fled to.. the UK.

> Shame on the West for such blatant imperialist attempt at meddling with chinese internal affairs.

Shame on you for creating a throwaway account defending China's brutal authoritarian regime with whataboutisms.

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