April 18, 2024

Revealed: the names linked to ClothOff, the deepfake pornography application | Artificial intelligence (AI)

The first time Miriam al-Adib learned about the photographs was when she returned home from a business trip. “Mom,” her daughter said. “I want to show you something.”

The girl, 14, opened her phone to show an explicit image of herself. “When you see it, it’s shocking,” said Adib, a gynecologist in the southern Spanish city of Almendralejo and mother of four daughters. “The image is completely realistic… If I didn’t know my daughter’s body, I would have thought that image was real.”

It was a deepfake, one of dozens of images of naked schoolgirls from Almendralejo generated by artificial intelligence (AI) and that had been circulating around the town for weeks in a WhatsApp group created by other schoolchildren.

Some of the girls whose portraits were being spread refused to go to school, suffered panic attacks, were blackmailed and harassed in public. “My concern was that these images had reached pornographic sites that we don’t even know about today,” Adib told The Guardian from her clinic in the city.

State prosecutors are considering charging some of the children,
who created the images using an application downloaded from the Internet. But they were unable to identify the people who developed the app, who prosecutors believe are located somewhere in Eastern Europe, they said.

The Spanish incident made global news last year and made Almendralejo, a small town of faded Renaissance-era churches and squares near the Portuguese border, the site of the latest in a series of warning shots of an imminent future. where artificial intelligence tools will allow anyone to generate hyper-realistic images with just a few clicks.

But while deepfakes of pop stars like Taylor Swift have generated the most attention, they represent the tip of an iceberg of non-consensual images that are proliferating on the internet and that police are largely unable to stop.

While Adib was learning about the images, thousands of miles away, at Westfield High School in New Jersey, a strikingly similar case was unfolding: many girls were targeted by explicit deepfake images generated by students in their classes. The New Jersey incident sparked a civil lawsuit and helped spur a bipartisan effort in the US Congress to ban the creation and dissemination of non-consensual deepfake images.

At the center of the incidents in Spain and New Jersey was the same app, called ClothOff.

In the year since the app launched, the people who run ClothOff have carefully guarded their anonymity, digitally distorting their voices to answer media questions and, in one case, using artificial intelligence to generate a completely fake persona that they say They claimed, he was their executive director.

An image of ‘Ewan Liam Torres’, who ClothOff claims is its CEO, but which is likely an AI-generated image. Photography: screenshot

But a six-month investigation, conducted for a new Guardian podcast series called Black Box, may reveal the names of several people who have worked for ClothOff or who our investigation suggests are linked to the app.

Their trail leads to Belarus and Russia, but passes through companies registered in Europe and front companies based in the heart of London.

ClothOff, whose website receives more than 4 million monthly visits, invites users to “undress anyone using AI.” The app can be accessed via smartphone by clicking a button which confirms the user is over 18 and charges approximately £8.50 for 25 credits.

The credits are used to upload photographs of any woman or girl and return the same image stripped of clothing.

A brother and sister in Belarus

Screenshots seen by The Guardian indicate that a Telegram account in the name of Dasha Babicheva, who, according to social media accounts, is in her mid-twenties and lives in the Belarusian capital Minsk, has conducted business on behalf of ClothOff, including discussion of applications to banks. website changes and business partnerships.

A profile image of a Telegram account in the name of Dasha Babicheva. Photography: screenshot

In a screenshot, the account in Babicheva’s name tells a counterpart at another company that if journalists have questions about ClothOff, “they can contact us at this email,” providing the website’s press contact.

An Instagram account in Babicheva’s name, which shared some of the same images as the Telegram account in her name and which included the same phone number, was made private after The Guardian began making inquiries and the phone number was removed from the profile.

Babicheva did not respond to detailed questions.

A profile photo taken from the LinkedIn account in the name of Alaiksandr Babichau. Photography: supplied

Alaiksandr Babichau, 30, identified on social media accounts as Dasha Babicheva’s brother, also appears to be closely linked to ClothOff.

In a recruiting advertisement, ClothOff directed applicants to an email address on the AI-Imagecraft website.

AI-Imagecraft’s domain name records show that the website owner’s name has been withheld at the owner’s request.

But AI-Imagecraft has a virtually identical duplicate website, A-Imagecraft, whose owner has not been hidden: it is listed as Babicau. The Guardian was able to log into both A-Imagecraft and AI-Imagecraft using the same username and password, indicating that the two websites are linked.

There are other links between Babicau and ClothOff. The Guardian has seen screenshots of conversations between ClothOff staff and a potential business partner. ClothOff staff are identified only by their names and one of them, identified by another staff member as the “founder”, had the Telegram display name “Al.”

The Guardian compared the videos posted on Al’s Telegram account to publicly available images posted on an account in the name of Alaiksandr Babicchau. It showed that both Al and Babichau had uploaded videos and photographs showing the same hotel in Macau on January 24, and from rooms in the same Hong Kong hotel on January 26. The correlation suggests that the two accounts belong to people who traveled to the cities at the same time or to the same person.

Babichau, contacted by phone last week, denied any connection to the deepfake app, claimed he did not have a sister named Dasha and said a Telegram account in his name, which included his phone number, did not belong to him. In response to further questions, he abruptly ended the phone call and did not respond to detailed questions via email.

Shortly after the conversation, The Guardian was blocked by the Telegram account that it claimed did not belong to it.

Photography: screenshot

A money trail through London

The payments to ClothOff revealed the extent to which the app’s creators have gone to great lengths to disguise their identities. The transactions led to a London-registered company called Texture Oasis, a company that claims to sell products for use in architecture and industrial design projects.

But the company appears to be a fake company designed to disguise payments to ClothOff.

The text on the company’s website has been copied from another legitimate company’s website, as has a list of staff members. When The Guardian contacted one of the people listed as an employee of Texture Oasis, he said he had never heard of the business. Our investigation found no other links between the named staff and ClothOff, adding to the suggestion that the staff list has been copied.

The Guardian has also uncovered links between ClothOff and an online video game marketplace called GGSel, described by its chief executive as a way for Russian gamers to circumvent Western sanctions.

Both websites briefly listed the same business address last year: a London-based company called GG Technology Ltd, registered to a Ukrainian national named Yevhen Bondarenko. Both websites have since removed any references to the company.

The LinkedIn account in Babichau’s name lists him as a GGSel employee.

Meanwhile, an account in the name of Alexander German, described as a web developer whose LinkedIn says he also works at GGSel, uploaded the website code for ClothOff to an account in his name on GitHub, a coding repository. This source code was removed shortly after.

Contacted by the phone number listed on his LinkedIn, someone who identified himself as Alexander German denied being a web developer or being linked in any way to ClothOff.

Several LinkedIn accounts that listed their employment at GGSel in their profiles removed any references to the company or removed their last names and photographs after The Guardian began making inquiries about links between GGSel and ClothOff.

In a statement, GGSel denied any relationship with ClothOff and said it had no connection to GG Technology Ltd, but could not or did not explain why the company was listed on its website as its owner last year. He said that neither Babicau nor German had been employees and that he would contact LinkedIn to ask them to remove profile references in their names.

Bondarenko deleted his social media accounts on Wednesday and The Guardian was unable to reach him for comment.

ClothOff said in response to questions that it had no connection to GGSel or anyone mentioned in this article. A spokesperson stated that it was impossible to use its app to “process” images of people under 18, but did not specify how or why, or how the app generated images, including those of children, in Spain. They speculated that the images in New Jersey could have been created using a competing service.

On Thursday, access to the ClothOff website and app appeared to have been blocked in the United Kingdom, but they were still available elsewhere.

Research has revealed the increasing difficulty in distinguishing real people from false identities that can be accompanied by high-quality photographs, videos and even audio. A more complete account of this story will be published in an episode of Black Box releasing next Thursday.

  • Additional reporting by Matteo Fagotto, Phil McMahon, Oliver Laughland, Manisha Ganguly, Andrew Roth, Yanina Sorokina and Kateryna Malofieieva.

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