DIY Deep Fakes: an alternative point of view

Update: A year after I posted this blog, I left the Microsoft MVP Program due to bullying, harassment and rape jokes. I don’t want to be aligned with the Microsoft data platform community any more. I tried my best but it is not a safe place for me.
Please note that the people mentioned in this post had nothing to do with the bullying, harassment or any other of the behaviours that the Microsoft Data Platform community tolerated or supported. 

I wanted to offer some alternative thoughts on the presentation entitled ‘DIY Deep Fakes‘ with the subtitle ‘Why Deep Fakes are dangerous, and how to make them‘. I don’t represent the Microsoft MVP Program, any other Microsoft program, or Microsoft. The backstory is that the presenter, James Ashley, was an MVP for ten or so years, and he was removed from the Program as per his blog post here. I have not met James although I’m a Microsoft MVP, holding the Award for 8 years.


The title of the presentation is DIY Deep Fakes. Straight away, that’s a call to action: literally, ‘do it yourself’. The first part of the presentation, James rightly points out that there are bad aspects to deep fakes, specifically, political objectives and pornography. Then, James walks you through the technology on making deepfakes, as per the subtitle. From the 37th minute to the end, the recommendation comes to try FakeApps with your browser in ‘incognito’ mode, antivirus on, and machine not connected to the network. For the record, I am absolutely NOT recommending that you create deepfakes. If you want to learn about AI, there are plenty of other fun, safe ways.

Let’s look past the presentation for a moment, and consider the consequences.  It’s not a huge jump to imagine that someone watching that would think, hey, why don’t I try that thing that the MVP did by myself? And before you know it, they’ve created a deepfake porn video, using Microsoft technologies, inspired by a Microsoft MVP, a well-respected community leader. Personally, I don’t believe that Microsoft would want that. The consequences could be tragic. In the video, James specifically calls out some of the virtual machines on Azure, from 33 minutes in the video for this purpose

What could the presentation have achieved instead? The presentation could have shown more clearly how to identify a deepfake, how to report it if it is hurtful, and how to technically distinguish a truth from a lie. The presentation could have used the time and communication opportunity to do something to help combat this pernicious misuse of technology, and do good something really positive for community health, diversity and inclusion. I would like to have seen MVPs inspire a culture of positivity by clarifying how to catch deepfakes, and speak out forcefully. Instead, we get a presentation from an MVP about how we can make our own deepfakes and your title is literally a Call to Action on making deepfakes: Do It Yourself.

I don’t know the situation about James being removed from the MVP Program, or what happened, and all I have to go on is the presentation that James has tweeted, and James’ blog here. And, having reviewed both, that’s all I have to go on, and, quite frankly, I have no idea why this presentation was never questioned by anyone. Why not go for the technical and social challenge of preventing them in the first place? I’m all for open debates, but the presentation circumvents the debates by showing people how to create them; foregone conclusion.

James is right on one thing; anything along the lines of revenge porn, porn without the consent of the participants, porn created to hurt people, deepfakes etc etc are absolutely painful. When I was at university, one of my classmates photoshopped my face into the body of a porn actress, and printed out tons of copies and put them on the university dorms and they refused to take them down. Twenty years later, I still cringe when I think about it. I only found out about it because the male students all sniggered when I went past and eventually one of my friends told me, and I went to visit one of the rooms and there ‘I’ was – up on the wall. It was beyond horrifying. When I close my eyes, I can still see the picture. And that was just a picture. An actual movie would be much, much worse, and why oh why would that be given airtime? Why should I have to sit in conferences where someone is literally showing how to create deepfakes?

On a separate note, I have written about my own MeToo experience here and other places (it carries a trigger warning) and how the technical community participation has helped me in my healing process. I’d have loved it if my fellow MVPs would show support by helping to stop the problem, which is an interesting and technically complex challenge. I’d want to feel that the MVPs are on my side, as a fellow MVP and MeToo survivor/campaigner, and leading the community away to calling out deepfakes.

If you James or anyone else does respond, I hope that you’ll consider wisdom and good judgement in making a considered response. To quote Aeschylus:

“Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”

My wisdom is hard won, and I hope that this perspective will be considered along with all of the heat that seems to be happening. It seems as if the argument has got down into the weeds of simply apologizing to anyone who has seen the video, or attended the presentation at Summit, and who was upset by it. I have to say, the argument does not consider the impact of our voices as MVPs and as a community leader. Our voice carry as an MVP and I suspect many people would be horrified if someone made a deepfake porn as a result of this session. I’m not sure that this consequence was ever considered.

I don’t want to have to attend conferences where a well-respected speaker is showing audience members how to make deepfakes. They can get that information from anywhere on the Internet, sure, but the problem is, as a community leader (MVP or whatever) we set direction and tone. MVPs can help move the needle, and I’d have liked MVPs to be the people who speaks out forcefully and with conviction about the pernicious misuse of this technology, and helps move the needle for good. It’s not about creating them as a beautifully technical experiment, it’s about stopping the hurt that they can cause.

I hope that people in the technical community will consider the consequences of the DIY – literally, Do It Yourself – talk because the consequences go far greater than just potentially upsetting one of the immediate attendees. It’s the principle and the spirit that’s wrong. I don’t speak for MIcrosoft, the MVP Program or anyone else; this is my thoughts. For me, MVPs are given a great platform and opportunity to do something really great. Stopping deepfakes is hard, and perhaps the session should have been about that instead; still a great technical session, but one that really sets the tone as a great example of community leadership.

People have to think ethically and carefully about technology and it’s use and misuse, and who can get hurt, and how it could be stopped. I don’t think it’s right that we see lots of deepfakes inspired by MVPs. I think we need to strive to show wisdom and judgement as the leaders that the MVP Program recognizes us to be.

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