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By Bruce Sussman
Wed | Mar 24, 2021 | 3:45 AM PDT

The world was amazed by the lifelike Obama deepfakes that made the rounds a few years ago.

And people got a good chuckle out of the more recent Tom Cruise deepfake videos.

But no one is laughing about a real-life case in Doylestown, Pennsylvania.

Someone created deepfake videos to damage the reputation of three teenage girls so they would get kicked off a competitive cheer squad.

And police just arrested a local mother in what they are calling a deepfake cyberbullying attack.

This is a case that illustrates the risk we face in the future when it comes to deciding if a video we see is real and if the privacy we give up on social media will be weaponized against us.

Woman arrested for sending deepfake videos to damage reputations

The website for the Victory Vipers Cheer team says its members will experience the thrill of competition. However, in this case, the competition appears to have been within the squad.

The investigation started in the summer of 2020 after one of the teen girls started getting anonymous text messages telling her to kill herself. Her mother notified authorities as things began to unfold:

"She also reported that photos were taken from her daughter's social media and edited to make her appear to be drinking, vaping, and in one photo, her bathing suit was edited out and covered with skin tone color to make it appear as if she was naked. A video was also sent to the Victory Vipers cheer gym, showing the victim vaping."

The criminal complaint in the case details this part of the investigation, conducted by Hilltown Township Police officer Matthew Reiss:

 He "...reviewed the video and found it to be the work of a program that is or is similar to 'Deep Fakes,' where a still image can be mapped onto an existing video and alter the appearance of the person in the video to show the likeness of the victim's image instead."

And then toward the end of 2020, other parents of the Victory Vipers squad received concerning messages. The Bucks County District Attorney explains:

"Officer Reiss met with the parents of two additional victims in December who reported receiving messages in August in regards to their daughters, showing pictures of the girls with captions 'toxic traits, revenge, dating boys, and smoking' and 'was drinking at the shore, smokes, pot, and uses 'attentionwh0re69' as a screen name.'"

cheerleader-mom-deepfakesWho is accused of committing this crime? 50-year-old Raffaela Spone, whose daughter was also on the Victory Vipers cheer team.

Police are charging her with three counts each of cyber harassment of a child and harassment; both crimes are misdemeanors.

How police tracked down suspect in deepfakes crime

In this case, digital forensic work led police to their suspect and revealed how the fake videos were created:

"Police used a series of search warrants to determine information about the phone numbers the messages were sent from, leading them to the IP address that traced back to Spone. The search warrants of devices seized confirmed use of Spone's cellphone to use the 'Pinger' application to download, access and/or manipulate data. This also confirmed the phone numbers and IP addresses previously searched."

Pinger is a phone and texting app that says it's designed to "empower the underdog" and help those who need a second phone number.

Threat of deepfakes may alter our future

SecureWorld Advisory Council member Joshua Cloud spoke at a recent virtual conference about machine learning and artificial intelligence. During his presentation, Cloud talked about the largest looming threats from deepfakes:

"They are probably a larger threat when it comes to things like political influence propaganda and other forms of mass social manipulation. With the speed at which false information spreads via social media and news organizations focus more on clicks than on content.

A fake video showing a major political figure or a CEO saying or doing something illegal or unappealing, could be tremendously powerful. And imagine it's not just one video, but a hundred.

Eventually, trust is eroded by the public to a point where everyone just believes what they want to believe—and everything they don't like is fake. Even without deep fakes in the equation, we're very close to this type of reality already."

Can you imagine a presidential candidate's campaign getting sunk by a series of deepfake videos that look real? It could change the history of a nation. 

We wrote about this earlier, in our story on Facebook's 2020 Deepfake Strategy.

In this case of the cheer team deepfakes, the point was to damage reputations and sink other girls low enough they would be off the team.

The consequences are certainly much lower than faking the actions of a president, but we doubt it feels that way to the families involved in the case.