Tens of millions of Americans filling their gas tanks this week may be in for a fright at the pump this season.
No, it’s not about gas prices. Rather, it’s what is expected to happen from viewing a creepy campaign about privacy issues being shown on screens at the 24,000 Gas Station TV (GSTV) locations across the country.
The scene shows the friendly face of the TV anchor at the pump transforming into the villainous visage of a man with a sinisterly voiced warning about digital data collection.
The stunt, which involved using deepfake technology to replace the face of GSTV host Maria Menounos, is part of a new online privacy campaign that also includes a hair-raising Zoom video experience putting viewers in the center of a horror movie-like plot via their webcam.
The entire project is a belated follow-up to a 2011 viral stunt called “Take This Lollipop,” a Facebook app that captivated a more innocent generation of social media user with videos of the same ominous character reciting data about each viewer collected through Facebook’s data-sharing practices.
Creators Jason Zada, a film director, and Jason Nickel, a developer, said they hoped to reprise the success of that effort and the awareness it brought to Facebook’s data policies, but were waiting for the right cause.
“We took our time only because it really felt like we needed to find the right idea with the right piece of technology at the right time,” Zada said.
“It just so happened that a pandemic made that possible with this massive shift in technology and social communication–everybody started using Zoom,” he continued. “So the question was, ‘How can we use this current time in society in technology to our advantage and take something that we all rely upon, and and sort of twist it and turn it around a bit?’”
The result is an approximately 4-minute long Zoom video experience that detects your face and places the viewer in a Zoom call with three actors, two of whom—spoilers ahead—are spirited away by some unknown entity in suspenseful fashion before an augmented reality figure appears in the background of the viewer’s own room. The remaining participant then reveals herself to be the campaign’s trademark villain.
Zada and Nickel said the original goal had been to deepfake each viewer in real-time, but they couldn’t pull off the the technology in time for the launch. Instead, they decided to incorporate the deepfake element into a deal with GSTV and Menounos to hijack her regular segment with an ominous message.
“The general idea was that Halloween has been cancelled for the most part for a lot of people. Even brands have been shifting away from doing anything Halloween-related this year. And it seemed like the perfect opportunity,” Zada said.
“But you mix that with an election year in which there are these deep fakes that exist, there is AI, there is the hacking of the election, there’s the hacking of just general politics,” he added. “It was kind of interesting to look at how we could use deepfake in a more consumer-friendly way and show people that like, ‘I could access you–not your data anymore—but I could access you, I could recreate you, I could become you.’”
A recent survey of researchers ranked deepfakes as the number-one cyber-criminal threat posed by AI. Its nefarious potential extends beyond the creation of fake news footage of public figures–an oft-discussed threat that has yet to materialize in any significant way beyond YouTube gags, per deepfake tracking platform Sensity. Other areas of concern include identity theft, video call scam extortion and its most prevalent use as of a source of non-consensual pornography.