By KATIE MOEN
WESTFIELD — A local student whose image was doctored during a recent deepfake incident at Westfield High School is working with elected representatives to enact positive change and advocate for stronger protections against digital privacy violations.
Earlier this year, Francesca Mani, then 14, arrived at school to find that another student had used photo-editing software to digitally alter photos of her body, along with those of an unknown number of her female peers, without her knowledge and consent.
Instead of allowing the incident to disrupt her sophomore year, however, Ms. Mani, along with her mother, Dorota, and several other Westfield parents and students, reached out to Senator Jon Bramnick, Rep.Tom Kean, Jr., and other local representatives to find a way to prevent similar situations in the future.
“I don’t think what happened in [Westfield] is any different from what had happened in DC, Spain or Wisconsin,” Ms. Mani said, referencing other known instances of digital manipulation. “The only difference is that I am not afraid to speak up. If we don’t talk, it’s like saying that what happened is okay. Well, it’s not. I have done nothing wrong, and I have nothing to be ashamed of. I am proud that my mother taught me never to settle and always fight for what is right.”
Ms. Mani’s goal of further codifying regulations prohibiting the use of digital imaging to misrepresent New Jersey residents recently came closer to fruition with the introduction of two new bills — one sponsored by Mr. Bramnick and Senator Kristen Corrado (District 40) and another sponsored by Mr. Kean at the Congressional level.
“As a father, I am deeply disturbed by how effortlessly this kind of technology can be used in an explicit nature and minors can very easily be the victims,” Rep. Kean said. “My heart goes out to the parents of these students and the victims at Westfield High School who have been affected by this incident. My team and I have spoken with families involved in this incident to find a solution to prevent something like this from ever happening again.”
Mr. Kean’s bill, introduced in late November, calls for the director of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) to coordinate with other federal agencies to form a working group to assist in identifying AI generated content and establish a framework on labeling AI.
“Artificial intelligence is progressing astoundingly fast, and so are the companies behind its development. We are living in a highly-advanced technological world that is ever-changing, and proper oversight is necessary,”Mr.Kean said.
The bill, entitled The AI Labeling Act of 2023, would also require that developers of generative AI systems, “incorporate a prominently displayed disclosure” that clearly identifies content generated by AI; ensure that developers and third-party licensees take responsible steps to prevent “systematic publication of content” without disclosures; and form a working group of government, AI developers, academia, and social-media platforms to establish definitive practices for identifying AI-generated content and determining the most effective means of transparently disclosing it to consumers.
Ms. Mani, who has been in contact with Mr. Kean since learning of the Westfield deepfake, said the bill feels “very important.” “It’s so cool to know that my local congressman cares so much about the girls from Westfield that he will write a bill to protect us and all girls,” Ms. Mani said, adding that the congressman has spent time helping her learn to navigate political waters.
Senator Bramnick’s bill, meanwhile, seeks to establish punitive measures against those who would use AI technology to create explicit images like those circulated throughout the high school.
Under the new bill, the non-consensual sharing of deepfake pornography would be a considered a crime in the third degree. Distributing, possessing, or storing deepfake pornography depicting a child would carry the same penalties applied to child pornography, which is a first- or second-degree charge depending on the number of files found.
“AI deepfake pornography is being used to harass, ridicule, and embarrass innocent students in our local schools. I’m joining as a sponsor of Senator Corrado’s legislation to increase penalties for bad actors who engage in the disgusting proliferation of deepfake pornography,” Mr. Bramnick said. “Republicans and Democrats should work together to address the pervasive issue of AI crimes to help school administrators and victims quickly respond when these disturbing incidents occur.”
Ms. Mani, meanwhile, says she plans to continue to advocate for herself, her peers and for anyone else who may find themselves facing similar challenges.
“I think we should start from our town and make sure that our school district has updated policies,” she said. “Westfield is my home and I think we students and our parents should send emails to the school board members and our principals to make sure they do the right thing. The politicians have been working so hard those past few weeks to put new laws to protect us; our schools and school boards should join the fight.”
The Westfield High School sophomore also has launched her own website under the umbrella of a local charity organization to help educate teens about digital responsibility and to help others who may have been targeted by deepfake incidents, by connecting them to information and resources.
“As a mom, I want to add how proud I am of my daughter and her continued self-advocacy effort,” Dorota Mani said of her daughter. “Francesca is kind, respectful, resilient and opinionated, and she is choosing to use her platform meaningfully, which makes me very happy as she continues to cultivate our family values.”
To view Ms. Mani’s website, or to learn more about how to prevent AI deepfakes, visit: www.aiheeelp.com.