FBI warns parents predators are using AI to prey on kids

PITTSBURGH — Federal law enforcement officials say artificial intelligence is making it harder to fight predators who make and share sexually explicit images of children.

The FBI has been warning parents for years about predators lurking on social media and the dangers kids are subjected to online. Sexploitation has become a growing concern in recent years, with predators or opportunists using sexually explicit photos of kids and teens to blackmail, extort and threaten them.

FBI Pittsburgh Supervisory Special Agent Timothy Wolford said parents are often unaware of how easily predators can communicate with children online and how manipulative and convincing they can be.

“By giving children these devices, they are essentially inviting predators into their own home,” Wolford said. “If parents are not on guard, there is a very, very high likelihood that their child will be victimized.”

Wolford said even if youth don’t respond to requests and messages from adults seeking an inappropriate relationship on social media, it is likely they are being reached out to. People with bad intentions often groom their victims before trying to convince them to send inappropriate images or meet in person.

He said artificial intelligence is another tool predators use to get what they want. The most concerning part is that any innocent photo posted online can be manipulated.

“Before we used to always preach to the schools about think before you post and making sure that you would never post a picture that you wouldn’t be comfortable sharing with your grandmother. AI has now completely changed that landscape,” Wolford said.

People are using manipulated photos to extort victims for money or convince them to send real photos of themselves. Victims generally have a lot of shame and embarrassment, which can lead them to make desperate or irrational decisions to prevent further embarrassment.

Around the country, some cases of so-called sextortion have caused youth to die by suicide.

Dorota Mani testified before Congress last year. Her daughter is a victim of AI deepfake photos. Teen classmates manipulated dozens of girls’ photos to make them appear nude. It is unknown how widely the images were shared.

“Our girls should not be solo gladiators fighting for their rights. It’s shameful,” Mani said. “We took a stand and my daughter took back her dignity.”

Wolford said predators are also using artificial intelligence to create explicit images of children who do not exist.

“We’re expending resources to track down every child that we find that is being victimized online. If those children aren’t real, that’s obviously going to be directing resources away from actual victims,” Wolford explained. “The tools that are used to create synthetic material are advancing or outpacing the resources that we have to identify those images.”

In April, James Smelko, 57, was sentenced to almost 15 years in prison for possessing deepfake child sex abuse material. He was previously convicted by a federal jury. Smelko had photos showing the faces of child actors superimposed on nude bodies and bodies engaged in sex acts.

It was a first-of-its-kind case and conviction for the FBI.

“Because a lot of this technology is very new, there’s not a lot of case law that exists out there. So this was one of the first cases we saw go to trial and get a conviction,” Wolford said.

He wants parents to know that predators are expert manipulators, so parents have to keep their guards up. He said parents should strongly consider limiting or restricting social media access altogether.

“This is the main way now that kids are being targeted and being exploited by child predators,” Wolford said. ”I would say a large majority of the cases, the current cases we have that we’re investigating right now, we wouldn’t even have if kids weren’t on social media and they didn’t have these devices.”

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children tells 11 Investigates it received 4,700 tips in 2023 related to AI-generated content.

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