Deepfakes and online scams: navigating legal issues in Hong Kong and Singapore

12 June 2024 | Applicable law: Hong Kong, Singapore | 7 minute read

The rapid advancement of technology has given rise to increasingly sophisticated methods of deception, with deepfake technology emerging as a significant threat. Online scams are becoming more prevalent, affecting individuals and organizations globally. This article explores the challenges and responses to online scams in Hong Kong and Singapore, focusing on the legal frameworks, enforcement efforts, and technological measures implemented to combat them. 

High-profile deepfake scams 

After London-based design and engineering firm Arup lost HK$200 million (approximately US$25.5 million) when an employee at its Hong Kong office was fooled by a digitally recreated version of the firm's CFO early this year, another UK-based multinational company fell victim to a similar deepfake scam, where a local Hong Kong employee was tricked into transferring HK$4 million (approximately US$510,000) by a fake supervisor.  

Singapore, like Hong Kong, faces its own challenges with the rising threat of deepfake technology. An illustrative example occurred recently when a deepfake video featuring Senior Minister Lee Hsien Loong surfaced online. The video falsely depicted him promoting an investment product with guaranteed returns, leveraging footage from his 2023 National Day message and convincingly synchronising his mouth movements and voice. In a Facebook post, Senior Minister Lee warned the public about the scam, emphasising the sophistication of these deepfakes and urging vigilance against such fraudulent schemes.

The emergence of advanced technologies such as deepfakes poses significant challenges for legal frameworks and enforcement efforts

Notwithstanding increasing public awareness of the existence of recreated videos or images of real-life persons, the current trend shows that news reports of online scams are still on the rise.  Hong Kong has recorded a 42.6% increase in all types of deception in 2023, 70% of which were online scams. The amount lost to scams also went up by 89% from 2022 to 2023.

Scam and cybercrime cases in Singapore surged by nearly 50% in 2023, with over 50,000 cases reported.1 Additionally, instances of deepfakes in Singapore surged by 500% in 2023 compared to the previous year, highlighting the growing sophistication and prevalence of these scams.2 Despite this, the total amount lost to fraudsters decreased slightly by 1.3% during that same period, attributed to efforts by the authorities and the private sector, including banks, to mitigate scams while the scam process was still ongoing. This trend underscores the importance of ongoing efforts to combat online scams effectively.

As a matter of fact, the emergence of advanced technologies such as deepfakes poses significant challenges for legal frameworks and enforcement efforts.  

One of the primary difficulties lies in the inherent nature of deepfakes, which can seamlessly blend reality and fiction, making it challenging to establish conclusive evidence of wrongdoing. The sophisticated manipulation of audio, visual, and textual data can obscure the true origins of the content, leaving law enforcement and legal authorities with the burden of proving authenticity and intent.

Moreover, the cross-jurisdictional nature of online crimes exacerbates the complexity of enforcement. Perpetrators can easily operate from anywhere in the world, making it difficult for local authorities to pursue and apprehend them effectively. The lack of harmonised international laws and cooperative frameworks further compounds the issue, hampering the ability to hold individuals accountable.

Hong Kong's response to deepfakes

The Hong Kong Police Force has taken steps to address the growing threat of online crimes, including deepfakes. In 2022, the force established a dedicated Cyber Security and Technology Crime Bureau to enhance its capabilities in investigating and responding to technology-enabled offenses. This specialised unit works to stay abreast of the latest trends and tactics employed by cybercriminals, with a focus on developing effective investigative techniques and collaborating with international law enforcement agencies.

Further, the rights owners facing the threat of deepfake misuse have several avenues for recourse. Under the current legal framework, they can seek legal remedies, such as injunctions or damages, to prevent the unauthorised use of their intellectual property.  Additionally, Personal Data (Privacy) Ordinance provides a legal framework to address the misuse of personal data, which can be relevant in cases where deepfakes involve the unauthorised use of an individual's likeness or identity.  Last but not least, access to a computer with criminal or dishonest intent is a crime under Hong Kong laws, and if proven and caught, the perpetrator could be subject to imprisonment of 5 years.

However, the practical implementation of these legal tools can be challenging. The rapid proliferation of deepfake content and the difficulty in tracking its sources and dissemination channels can make it arduous for right owners to effectively enforce their rights and obtain meaningful redress.

A balanced approach in Hong Kong

Policymakers in Hong Kong, and globally, face the delicate task of balancing the protection of individuals and intellectual property rights with the promotion of technological innovation and free expression.  The development of comprehensive and adaptable legal frameworks is crucial to address the evolving landscape of online crimes while ensuring that legitimate AI-powered applications can continue to thrive.

Policymakers in Hong Kong, and globally, face the delicate task of balancing the protection of individuals and intellectual property rights with the promotion of technological innovation and free expression.

One potential approach is the further strengthening of the Cyber Security and Technology Crime Bureau's capabilities, equipping it with the necessary resources and expertise to investigate and prosecute online offenses effectively. Additionally, international cooperation and the harmonisation of laws across jurisdictions could enhance the ability to combat cross-border online crimes.

In terms of legal framework, whilst amendment to the Copyright Ordinance is still under discussion, Hong Kong may consider enhancing some of the enforcement actions without dwelling on the definitions or the scope of protection, which may be more intricate.  For example, the government may introduce specific provisions that enable right owners to request the expeditious removal or takedown of infringing deepfake content that could enhance the ability to mitigate the harm caused by such incidents.  These provisions could outline clear procedures for content hosting platforms and service providers to respond to legitimate takedown requests, ensuring a more effective and timely response.  Hong Kong may further consider increasing the penalties and sanctions for deepfake-related offenses, such as the creation, distribution, or use of unauthorised copyrighted material, could serve as a stronger deterrence against the proliferation of such content.  

Alongside legal measures, educational initiatives and public awareness campaigns can empower individuals to recognise and report deepfake content, fostering a more informed and resilient digital ecosystem. Collaboration between governments, technology companies, and civil society organisations can also yield innovative solutions, such as the development of deepfake detection tools and content moderation frameworks.

As the digital landscape continues to evolve, the challenge of navigating the legal complexities of online crimes, including deepfakes, will remain a pressing concern. A multifaceted approach, combining robust legal frameworks, enhanced enforcement capabilities, and collaborative efforts, will be crucial in addressing this emerging threat while nurturing the responsible development of AI and other transformative technologies.

Strengthening enforcement and reporting mechanisms in Singapore

The incident involving Senior Minister Lee underscores the pressing need for robust legal frameworks and public awareness initiatives to combat deepfake scams. In response to this growing threat, Singapore has taken significant steps to bolster its defences. One such measure is the ScamShield Bot, an initiative allowing citizens to report suspicious content directly via WhatsApp. This tool represents a critical part of Singapore’s broader strategy to empower its residents to identify and report deepfakes and other online scams swiftly.

From a legal perspective, Singapore's approach to addressing deepfake-related crimes involves a combination of stringent intellectual property laws and comprehensive data protection regulations. For instance, victims of deepfake scams can seek legal remedies under the Protection from Harassment Act (POHA), which includes provisions against the misuse of technology to cause harm or distress. Additionally, the Personal Data Protection Act (PDPA) provides robust protections against the unauthorized use of personal data, a common element in many deepfake scams.

The ongoing battle against deepfake technology in Hong Kong and Singapore highlights the complex interplay between innovation and security

Moreover, the Singapore government is actively exploring ways to enhance these legal tools. Potential measures include amending existing laws to introduce specific provisions targeting deepfake content and increasing penalties for offenses involving deepfake technology. Such enhancements aim to deter the creation and dissemination of deepfakes, thereby reducing the risk of scams and protecting individuals' reputations and intellectual property.

In addition to legal reforms, educational initiatives play a crucial role in Singapore's strategy. Public awareness campaigns aim to educate citizens about the dangers of deepfake technology and provide practical advice on identifying and reporting fraudulent content. Collaboration between government agencies, technology companies, and civil society organizations is essential in developing and deploying advanced detection tools and content moderation frameworks to mitigate the impact of deepfakes.

Toeing the line between innovation and security 

The ongoing battle against deepfake technology in Hong Kong and Singapore highlights the complex interplay between innovation and security.  While the path forward involves significant challenges, the commitment to a multifaceted approach combining robust legal measures, technological advancements, and international cooperation offers a hopeful outlook. 

By continuing to adapt and innovate, Hong Kong and Singapore can better protect their citizens and uphold the integrity of their digital ecosystems. The more effectively legal, regulatory, and technological measures are developed and implemented to prevent, identify, and remove deepfakes, the greater the trust that can be built among users of the digital ecosystem. This trust is essential for enabling the development and deployment of technology for communication, dissemination of information, and commerce. 

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This document (and any information accessed through links in this document) is provided for information purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. Professional legal advice should be obtained before taking or refraining from any action as a result of the contents of this document.


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