Another breach of privacy involving distribution of explicit photos of AFL players on line. With a twist, some of the photos may be a product of deep fake

July 6, 2023 |

Another week, another scandal involving the AFL. This time it is not the fault of the organisation. The ABC reports in AFL investigates distribution of explicit images of past and present players online that explicit images of more than 45 players and former players have been circulated. The AFL is investigating according to its statement AFL investigating, police aware after nude photos of ‘more than 45 players’ leaked. In addition the Victoria police and the e Safety Commissioner have been notified. The role the AFL can play is constrained by its limited powers. Through technical experts it may, but not certainly, find the source of the photos and possibly where the the photos were sent. If AFL employees or members of AFL clubs were involved it has disciplinary powers. But beyond that its powers are limited. It can’t arrest anyone, it can’t enter premises with a warrant to search premises and any interview with someone has to be voluntary. The police have traditionally had a monopoly on those powers. A number of the regulators in this area have been given some coercive powers. The E Safety Commissioner has a page on its website devoted to Image based abuse.

This type of problem is not new. As the Conversation in In the 19th century, a man was busted for pasting photos of women’s heads on naked bodies … sound familiar? highlights creating false images to titillate or humiliate has only been limited by the technology and the imagination of users. Modern technology, especially the use of deep fake websites, has enabled those with this bent to create false images and distribute them. In this case some of the explicit images may not be fake.

The ABC article provides:

The AFL has launched an investigation into the illegal distribution of explicit images of players that have been shared online without their consent.

In a statement, the AFL said it had been contacted by multiple clubs concerned about “private and personal images of past and present AFL players”.

The league said the images had been circulated by an anonymous individual or group of people.

“There appears to have been significant work involved in gathering the images and creating files for distribution,” it said.

“It is important to note that many of the images are yet to be verified for identification.”

The AFL Integrity Unit, which has been asked to investigate the matter, has contacted the eSafety commissioner to have the images removed.

It said it had contacted the relevant law enforcement authorities in various states.

AFL Players’ Association CEO Paul Marsh said he understood the images had been removed by Google but concerns still remained over how they came to be posted.

“It’s a huge invasion of privacy. I don’t know how, whether players have been hacked or whether players have shared images with trusted people that have somehow ended up in this situation,” he told ABC News Breakfast.

“If people have copies of these photos, we’d urge you not to share them: this is really sensitive, private stuff and I hope that we can limit the damage.”

The AFLPA said it was important to note that some of the images may not be legitimate, but called their distribution “an appalling and disgusting act and a likely unlawful breach of privacy that is unacceptable”.

The players’ body is helping those affected investigate any potential legal action.

Victoria Police earlier said it was aware of explicit images of athletes being circulated online, but “no reports have been received at this stage”.

The AFL has offered welfare support for players who may be involved in the privacy breach. 

Cyber security expert Susan McLean said the fact that the incident involved male AFL players does not lessen the severity of the breach.

“There’s that societal thing about you know ‘it’s worse when it’s a girl’, [but] it’s not,” she said.

“Nobody deserves to be the victim of this type of crime and we need to apply the law equally.”

The Conversation article provides:

A new app can turn anyone into a porn star against their will. All you need is a photo and deep fake artificial intelligence technology will swap the person’s face into an adult video.

According to the MIT Technology Review the app breaches “an ethical line no other service has crossed before”.

Deep fake websites have existed since 2017 and research estimates 90-95% of videos produced are non-consensual porn or image-based abuse. The vast majority of victims are women.

However, while deep fake technology might be new, the problem certainly is not. Since the beginning of photography, men have been taking and sexually exploiting women’s images without their consent.

The method and tools might change, but the inclination to sexually abuse women by manipulating images has not. Addressing this problem — through law, technology or culture — means acknowledging its long and tenacious history.

‘Undraped Women’

The invention of photography in the 1830s radically altered the nature of portraiture. Images of individuals became more lifelike. They could also be captured, reproduced, manipulated and disseminated more easily.

In 1888, one of New York’s professional photographers, 30-year-old Le Grange Brown, was accused of showing and selling photographs of “undraped women” in local saloons. Brown had taken portraits of hundreds of young high society ladies during various social events and then cut and pasted their heads to images of naked women.

Sound familiar?

Due to this and other high-profile incidents, such as the unauthorised use of US first lady Francis Cleveland’s photograph on pharmaceuticals and tobacco, debate began about the problem of women’s images being taken and used without their consent.

As a result, in 1888, a bill to “protect ladies” was introduced to the US House of Representatives to prohibit the use of the portraits of “females” for advertising and trade purposes, without their consent in writing. It was vehemently opposed by groups of professional photographers and did not pass.

An article from the Ladies Home Journal in 1890 subsequently warned:

While the great majority of professional photographers are men of honour and responsibility […] women should always know the standing of the man to whom they entrust their negatives […] The negative once in his possession (if he is so disposed), he had the means of causing them great mortification by using it for base purposes.

‘Pretty girls’ and a ‘delightful pastime’

The capture and use of women’s photographs without consent intensified with the release of New York entrepreneur George Eastman’s Kodak camera in the 1880s.

Small, simple to use and cheap, the Kodak camera transformed photography into a “delightful pastime” for the ordinary man. Styled as a “detective camera”, due to its ability to be easily hidden from sight, it also led to a boom in surreptitious photography.

Newspaper articles and marketing materials employed hunting and shooting metaphors, framing amateur photograph as an aggressive, masculine hobby. “There are no game laws for those who hunt with a Kodak,” declared one advertisement.

More often than not, it was men capturing the images of unwilling or unsuspecting women. An 1889 New York Times article described amateur photographers as “young knights of the camera” and “pretty girls” as their “natural prey”:

If the young lady refuses he will perhaps strive to get her picture when she is not on guard just out of spite.

‘Common property, circulated from hand to hand …’

In 1890, comic opera star Marion Manola had her photograph surreptitiously snapped by a theatre manager and professional photographer while performing on Broadway.

She wore an (at the time) revealing costume of tights, and the image was turned into an erotic postcard. Manola took the men to court. She did not want to be depicted as a sexual object, to become, in her words:

common property, circulated from hand to hand, and treasured by every fellow who can raise the price demanded.

Manola’s case was used as an example by jurists Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis when they argued for a new legal “right to privacy” in their landmark Harvard Law Review article that same year.

In 1903, as a result of another case involving the unauthorised use of a woman’s photograph, the New York Legislature enacted the first right to privacy in the US and across the common law world, including Australia and the United Kingdom.

A mutating problem

The sexual exploitation of women’s images by men is not just something that emerged with the internet, apps and smart phones. It is a persistent cultural problem.

Laws – such as privacy rights and those criminalising image-based abuse – can provide victims with redress and justice.

However, until men’s sense of entitlement to use and abuse women’s bodies for the purposes of vengeance, spite, gratification or profit is tackled, this problem will simply evolve or mutate with each new technology.

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