A free, easy-to-use deepfake bot found on the Telegram messenger app has victimized seemingly hundreds of thousands of women by replacing the clothed parts of their bodies in photos with nudity. More than 100,000 of these nonconsensual sexual images have been posted publicly online, but the bot has produced hundreds of thousands more that haven’t been traced.
A website promoting the bot claimed that more than 700,000 images of women have been manipulated to replace their clothing with nudity, as of Thursday, and that more than 100,000 abusers have uploaded images to the bot. Those numbers couldn’t be independently verified.
The victims are mostly private individuals, women whose photos were taken off social media or pulled from a personal stash of pics, according to a research report about the bot Tuesday, which traced more than 100,000 publicly posted images of victims of this bot. Some victims had originally been photographed in bathing suits or underwear. Some were wearing simple T-shirts and shorts. Some were visibly underage. All are women.
Deepfake porn isn’t new.technology — artificial intelligence that makes sophisticated media forgeries — has been used early and often to fabricate pornography. But this Telegram bot takes the ease and access of this technology to a new level.
“The innovation here is not necessarily the AI in any form,” said Giorgio Patrini, CEO of deepfake-research company Sensity and coauthor of the report. “It’s just the fact that it can reach a lot of people, and very easily.”
Computer manipulation of media has existed for decades, and sexual imagery has been weaponized online for as long as the internet could host photos. Whether it’s nude photos posted without consent or crudely doctored forgeries, sexual images have been weaponized to extort, threaten, humiliate and harass victims.
But only in the last few years has deepfake tech intensified the threat of manipulated sexual media, posing frightening implications for what may come.
“The deepfake phenomenon is even more alarming because it doesn’t look Photoshopped. It’s much more easy for somebody without the technical knowledge to make one,” said Mary Anne Franks, a law professor at the University of Miami and president of the online-abuse nonprofit Cyber Civil Rights Initiative. “It also makes the ability to avoid this kind of abuse much more difficult.”
With this Telegam bot, any woman who’s ever posted a selfie of herself from the waist up could be a potential victim. Even women out walking could be victimized if surreptitiously snapped by the wrong stranger.
And in one of the most disturbing forms of abuse with this bot, photographs of children have been uploaded to the bot’s AI, automatically manipulated to sexualize the child and then shared publicly.
Neither Sensity’s report nor this article are disclosing the name of the bot, to avoid amplifying it. CNET viewed galleries of images with the bot’s watermark posted online and interacted with the bot itself, stopping short of uploading any photos for it to manipulate.
Telegram’s tenacious commitment to free speech and privacy may make bots like this challenging to stamp out. Telegram has been criticized for hosting terrorist propaganda and coordination, facilitating piracy and copyright infringement, and harboring varieties of predatory pornography. But the service has also taken actions to remove abuse, such as kicking off groups for violent extremists like neo-Nazis and ISIS.
“There’s clearly value in encrypted platforms” like Telegram, said Sam Gregory, a program director with human-rights video organization Witness, who also advised Sensity on its report. “That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be thinking about the use of their platform for things that have nothing to do with free expression.”
Sensity reached out to Telegram multiple times over the last six months about its findings. Telegram didn’t respond to Sensity’s outreach, nor did Telegram respond to CNET’s messages seeking comment.
Deepfake technology is like a high-speed Photoshop conveyor belt on steroids. Using a kind of artificial intelligence known as neural networks, deepfake tech can generate media forgeries that make people appear to be doing or saying things they never did. The term deepfake is used most often with videos, but deepfakes can refer to any so-called “synthetic” media produced by deep machine learning, including pornographic still photos.
If this bot on Telegram sounds disturbingly familiar, a similar technology called DeepNude leaped to prominence last year, only to become so popular in a single day, after it was exposed in a news article, that its programmer shut it down.
Like the Telegram bot, DeepNude used artificial intelligence to automatically generate nonconsensual sexual images of women in photos, replacing their photographed clothing with nudity. Both, in effect, appear to “strip” victims of what they’re wearing in their pictures.
DeepNude was a website offering Windows and Linux apps that required some level of technical savvy to operate. In fact, the AI powering the Telegram bot appears to be an open-source version of DeepNude’s software. But the new bot is simpler and easier to use than the original desktop app, and it’s available to anyone on Telegram. The bot will accept your first photo to manipulate after tapping just a few prompts.
The bot is also designed to make it easy for abusers to share the manipulated images by posting them in chats and other online forms.
These nonconsensual sexual images have “been put out there to be found,” Patrini said. “They’re completely open, without any login, without any passwords, on the internet. Those are actually exposed completely.”
Sensity found 104,852 images of women that were victimized by the bot and then shared publicly, as of the end of July. While each image may not be of a unique individual, Patrini said instances of the same woman being victimized, or the same photo being manipulated repeatedly, were rare.
The 100,000-plus total number of images is limited to manipulated photos that were publicly posted and that Sensity was able to track down. Sensity doesn’t know the scope of material that is not shared, Patrini added. “But definitely we are talking about some multiplier of that 100,000.”
The bot’s promotional website suggests that as many as 700,000 images have been manipulated by the bot.
And the bot is growing in popularity. A year ago, about 1,000 images manipulated by the bot were posted in channels in a month. In July, that number had swelled to at least 24,168 images, according to Sensity.
And while deepfake pornography has long fixated on victimizing actresses, models and other celebrity women, 70% of this bot’s targets were private individuals, according to a self-reported survey of the bot’s users in Sensity’s report.
About 100,000 people are members of channels linked to the bot, Sensity found. These members overwhelmingly come from Russia and former-USSR countries, about 70% of those surveyed. Telegram is used globally, but its roots are in Russia, and links to the Telegram bot posted on VK, Russia’s dominant social network, are the most common way that abusers have found the bot. Telegram and VK were both founded by Pavel Durov, sometimes referred to as Russia’s Mark Zuckerberg.
In a statement, VK said it doesn’t tolerate such content or links on its platform and blocks communities that distribute them.
The bot is built with a “freemium” business model, providing free users with a basic level of functionality and reserving advanced features for those who pay. It’s the kind of user-friendly strategy that has helped legal, legitimate apps and games like Spotify and Fortnite become worldwide phenoms.
Abusers can use the bot free by sending photos to it one at a time, seemingly up to five a day. But “paid premium” features include sending multiple pics, skipping the line of free users and removing watermarks from the pornographic images they get in return.
But the bot’s business strategy is also ambitious, inspired by strategies from gaming and classic promotional tropes.
In a gamefied turn, the premium features are paid for with virtual “coins.” These coins can be purchased cheap with real currencies, and coin lotteries appear to distribute some for free. They can also be earned, as rewards.
One of the rewarded behaviors is recruiting new users. And because the app says that its virtual coins can be paid back in rubles, it effectively creates a system that pays abusers money in a government-issued currency for bringing in new abusers.
Fortunately, the payouts are presumably meager: The value of the bot’s coins are cheap, roughly five cents each.
The bot’s designer has also adopted classic promotional tactics. You can get a deeper discount on coins with the more of them you buy. The bot pitches new users with a one-time “beginner rate” special on coins.
‘This terrible technology’
The bot also underscores how a fixation on electoral deepfakes misses wider damage caused by pornographic ones, which are much more common and already devastating victims.
“So much of the focus on deepfakes is in an electoral context,” Gregory said. A preoccupation with “the perfect deepfake” of a political candidate or world leader is the kind of disinformation that tends to stoke congressional hearings. But that overlooks the harm being caused to regular people, at a larger and rapidly increasing scale, where even a poor-quality deepfake is still deeply harmful.
“We know that nonconsensual images are used against ordinary people, against journalists … and to target civic activists,” Gregory said.
Even with a bot like this operating for months, Witness hasn’t observed an explosion of that kind of harassment yet. “Which is a good thing,” Gregory added. “That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be extremely vigilant.”
But even vigilance is unlikely to result in justice for victims, Franks said, who pointed to a historical failure of our legal systems to address weaponized sexual imagery years ago.
“We wouldn’t be in this position, where we have technology capable of releasing this kind of malicious content at such a scale … if we paid attention before. We need to do better now,” she said. “If there’s any good to come of this terrible technology, it’s that people may take this more seriously.”