Skeptic News: Deepfakes, HPCA, and can we sell you a plot in Scotland?
NZ Skeptics Newsletter
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Welcome to the NZ Skeptics Newsletter.

This week, I talk about deepfakes and the implications for propaganda, and detour back in time, reminiscing about speech synthesis technology of yesteryear. 

Our regular contributor, Bronwyn Rideout tells us about the Health Practitioners Comptence Assurance act, and dives into being able to buy small plots of land in Scotland.

Oh, and have you checked out our new podcast yet? See the link down the bottom of the newsletter for details.

Enjoy...
Craig Shearer
 
In this week's newsletter

Deepfakes

With the Russian invasion of Ukraine, propaganda raises its head. Propaganda has always been a tool of war (and peace) but we’re seeing escalation to new levels.

Recently, a video was shared on social media of the Ukrainian President - Volodymyr Zelendskyy - asking citizens to lay down their arms against the Russian invaders. Analysis by experts has concluded that it’s a poorly done deepfake video. Zelendskyy’s head didn’t really fit his neck, and his head was disproportionate to his body.

So, what is a deepfake video? Deepfake, as Wikipedia describes it, is a portmanteau of “deep learning” and fake. Deep learning, in this instance, is referring to a technique in computer science that uses machine learning and artificial intelligence to create new content by analysing existing content.

The technology allows videos and other media to be created where the video appears to show somebody doing or saying something when they were not involved in the video at all.

There have been low quality instances of this for online porn, where celebrity faces are substituted for paid porn actors in an attempt to bolster the popularity of a video. 

And there have been “fun” apps built which allow you to substitute a person’s face into scenes from movies and TV shows, using just a single photograph. With more data, such as more photographs with open and closed eyes, and open and closed mouths, the video can become more realistic.

Ever since the creation of media there have been people who have experimented with faking. In Victorian times, camera double exposures were a common technique to generate a ghostly image of another person in a shot. But surely, all but the most gullible or invested viewer would spot that these were faked. (Although perhaps I’m over-estimating people - we regularly see images with photographic artefacts, such as lens flaring, being claimed as evidence of the paranormal!)

With the advent of film and video, creative editing techniques could be used to fool the viewer, to an extent. 

But recently, the advance of AI and ubiquity of powerful computing technology has advanced to a point where it’s becoming very difficult to tell whether something is fake or not. 

As an example of this, I tried out a website which specialises in producing great-sounding voice overs for promotional videos. The site allows you to paste in your text, then have it rendered as a realistic sounding voice of your choosing - say Ava, a young adult female, or Ethan, a middle-aged male. I tried this out with the opening paragraphs of this item, and it’s surprisingly realistic. Have a listen

While that site allows you to choose from predefined voices, with a suitable budget, AI can analyse anybody’s voice and then produce a facsimile of that voice saying words they never uttered.

As an aside, I experimented with speech synthesiser chips interfaced with 8-bit microcomputers in the mid 1980s. Back then, you could make a computer talk, with an extremely robotic sounding voice (that you often had to strain to understand), by figuring out what phonemes to send to the synthesiser chip to make the words. There’s an example of a project using the SP0256-AL2 chip interfaced to a Zilog Z-80 processor in modern times. (Back in the day, the processor I cut my teeth on was a MOS Technology 6502). So, the speech synthesis of today just blows me away!

Anyway, the skeptical implications of deepfakes are huge. It used to be that seeing was believing - at least to a degree. The resources and technology required to fake somebody doing or saying something they never did were next to impossible. Now, it’s certainly possible to produce something that is good enough to convince enough people that it’s real.

The use of altered video in films has been around for a while. Forrest Gump had amusing use of obviously faked video content. More recently, the For All Mankind series on Apple TV+ included very realistic video of Ronald Reagan, and of The Johnny Carson Show. (The series portrays an alternate reality where the Russians beat the USA to the moon.) And, at the moment, I’m enjoying the Amazon Prime series The Man in the High Castle, which shows an alternate reality where Germany and Japan won World War II, but features films of alternate realities where the allies won. Characters in the series comment on the seeming impossibility that the films could have been faked!

The danger is that future elections will be fought and won using these deepfake techniques. It will be relatively easy to produce an incriminating video of a political opponent saying something distasteful. The converse of this is that nobody will trust anything they see in the media or online (and, are we getting to that point already?) so that, even if a video is real, there will be those that doubt its veracity. And while most people might recognise a fake video, enough might think it's real to sway opinion enough to affect the outcome of an election.

We should always be very wary about believing something when that thing plays into our own personal biases. The thing is that determining what is real, and what’s generated, is becoming increasingly difficult.

Cycling back to Snopes - their recommendation is that it’s possible to spot a deepfake video by looking at it, and also by considering the source where it’s posted. I contend that simply looking at the video and figuring out whether it’s real or not will become increasingly difficult over time. Checking where it is posted is a good indicator though - did it appear on the usual channels, or has it arisen from somewhere unknown or suspicious. Of course, hackers might also have the ability to post content through seemingly trustworthy channels.

Midwife, Doctor, Psychologist, Chiropractor

The New Zealand HPCA Act and what’s in a name

Bronwyn Rideout

The Health Practitioners Competence Assurance Act 2003 intends to protect the public from serious or permanent harm while also protecting health practitioners through the power to restrict certain activities and ensure that the health care practitioner (HCP) remains within their scope of practice. In short, the Act establishes who can and what is required for an individual to legally claim that they are a Nurse, Doctor, or Midwife and their responsibilities thereafter.

There are several key provisions which allow Kiwi’s to determine whether the claim one makes to being a health care practitioner is valid.

It’s a document that has a lot of ANDs rather than ORs when it comes to mandatory requirements.

As in (emphasis is mine), 

A person may only use names, words, titles, initials, abbreviations, or descriptions stating or implying that the person is a health practitioner of a particular kind if the person is registered, and is qualified to be registered, as a health practitioner of that kind.

As well as

No person may claim to be practising a profession as a health practitioner of a particular kind or state or do anything that is calculated to suggest that the person practises or is willing to practise a profession as a health practitioner of that kind unless the person—

(a)   is a health practitioner of that kind; and

(b)   holds a current practising certificate as a health practitioner of that kind.

Qualifications and completion of examinations also play a key role in this process and the nuances of that end are not the purview of this article. Still, it is on completion of one’s education and a national exam that a HCP is able to register as a practitioner in their chosen field.

However, being on the register is not the only thing that is required in order for a HCP to practice in their field. HCPs must submit to an ongoing recertification programme with continuing education or professional hours alongside working within their prescribed scope of practice. This is called an Annual Practising Certificate or APC; a current APC is required in order to actually work as an HCP.

Life, as it does, can get in the way. Being absent from the register is not completely nefarious; people do request removal of their own accord due to change in life circumstances such as overseas moves and retirement. Statutory bodies allow HCPs to remain on the register without an APC for a period of at least 3 years before requiring the HCP to undergo a retraining or return to practice programme to get the HCP up to speed on NZ requirements. How this is organised is on a case-by-case basis dependent on where and what the HCP was doing during the period they were not practising in NZ. Some HCP get around this by working overseas and returning to NZ intermittently to complete the core requirements necessary to achieve (and pay for) an APC that will not be used in NZ.

So, an HCP can still call themselves a nurse, psychologist, midwife, doctor, etc. without having an APC as long as they are not practising AND are still on their professional register as a practitioner in good standing BUT they can absolutely not practice NOR refer to themselves by their professional title if they are not registered. The various statutory bodies have mechanisms for the public to report people claiming to be HCP without the mandatory registration and fines up to $10,000 can be levied against the accused.

Long before the pandemic, there were always opportunistic individuals who made claims to being Doctors etc., bending the truth about their ability to practice i.e. presenting themselves as a medical Doctor when they have a doctoral degree (looking at you Dr. Phil). Mark Hanna and Jane Glover both wrote blogs about how the title of doctor can be misconstrued for advertising purposes due to the business owner holding a PhD or similar qualification. However, the case regarding homeopath consultant Dr. Preet demonstrates there are still some loopholes given how the courtesy title of doctor is awarded elsewhere around the world. On the other hand, the New Zealand Psychologists Board takes this matter very seriously.

If in doubt about claims made by someone claiming to be a health care practitioner, you can search the relevant online register that is publicly available on the website for that professions regulatory body or contact the Ministry of Health’s Enforcement Team.

A dime a thousand

The many Lords and Ladies of Glencoe and the matter of souvenir Scottish titles

Bronwyn Rideout
 

No true Scotsman…buys souvenir plots

Advertisements for a small block of land and an accompanying Scottish title have cluttered the promotional section of weekend editions and the side bars of websites. They remained on my periphery until recently when a media commentary YouTube channel I frequent aired their own promotion for such an enterprise. I always relegated these schemes (and the spin-off industry of naming/owning a star) not as an outright scam but more of a scheme where everyone is in on the joke of some obscure loophole in Scotland’s property laws.

Selling of souvenir plots has been a cottage industry in the United Kingdom for almost 50 years. For a pocketful of dollars, one could purchase a little piece of Scotland and call themselves a Laird, Lord, or Lady. Sir Geoffrey Howe, then solicitor-general, summed up the appeal of these plots very nicely in his 1971 speech to the House of Commons:

“A trade had grown up in recent years in order to please tourists mainly from North America … whereby they are able to purchase a ‘square foot of Old England’ for a comparatively modest sum.... It helps the balance of payments..... and it gladdens the hearts of our continental cousins and enables them to obtain a splendidly medieval looking deed of title, which, no doubt, they display at some appropriate place in their homes."

The question is: can you really buy land and a piece of the peerage for $60?

The answer, once you read the fine print, is no!

The potential profit is tidy. Highland Titles Ltd. sells a variety of plots from starting at $60 NZD for 1 square-foot to $300 NZD for 100 square-feet. Taking a look at the math, selling a smaller portion of land is far more profitable than selling a larger one; with more than 400 acres of land available spread out over 5 reserves, they are unlikely to run out of space anytime soon. Even better, in the not so fine print of the website they state that they maintain ownership and management of the land. Established Titles, owned by Hong Kong competitor Katerina Yip/Galton Voysey, has a different pricing scheme with the smallest plot going for approximately $50 NZD and 10 square-foot plots selling for $350

So what loophole do these schemes exploit?

Regarding the use of titles, subject to good faith there are no obstacles to calling yourself a Laird, Lord, or Lady in Scotland. However, it is not possible to buy nobility titles. Elizabeth Roads, clerk for The Court of the Lord Lyon and keeper of the records (which oversees heraldry matters) makes it quite clear souvenir plot owners are ineligible for a coat of arms or real claims to said titles. According to the Court, titles of Lord and Lady do not relate to ownership of the land; Laird is not a title attached to a personal name but a specific description applied to a sizable parcel of land. 

To manoeuvre around this, some sellers stretch their intellectual property to the legal limit. Highland Titles Ltd claim they are being tongue-in-cheek by giving buyers permission to use their registered trademarks of Laird of Glencoe™, Lord of Glencoe™ and Lady of Glencoe™. As this is not a true aristocratic title, it should not be stated on a passport or other forms of identification but, some reports indicate otherwise.

As for the land, again, it's all smoke and mirrors.

In 1979, souvenir plots were defined in Scottish law in section 4(1)b of the Land Registration Act of 1979, whereby a souvenir plot of land is land “…being of inconsiderable size or no practical utility, is unlikely to be wanted in isolation except for the sake of mere ownership or for sentimental reasons or commemorative purposes”. Consequently, these pieces of land cannot be registered in the Land Registry or the General Register of Sasines. In 2012, updates to Section 22 of the Land Registration (Scotland) Act 2012 go further by replacing the or with and with further caveats of the land neither being a registered plot nor ownership of which being transferred or constituted in the Register of the Sasines at any time.

The Buyer is not conferred with real rights in the eyes of Scots Property Law, only a contractual right with the Seller. It is a nuance in Scots law that distinguishes between real and personal rights. Without registration, the buyer only has personal and not real right of ownership. Should the land in question be bought by a second-party in a manner that enables them to register the land, the original purchaser could not prevent that sale and may only be able to seek legal remedy from the seller. To the credit of these companies, there is no evidence of double selling plots and guarantees that your plot is “yours” appears “genuine”; you can even pass the land down to your descendants.

During Howe’s original speech, he was concerned that including souvenir plots in the Land Registry would quickly overwhelm the resources available. In England, where similar schemes operated, the government changed their laws in 2002 to require the registration of souvenir plots and appeared to have coped alright.

In recent years, the business model has survived as companies change tactics. Some lean more on the novelty element while others emphasise their conservation partnerships. Bandai Namco recently partnered with Highland Titles in promoting the recent release of the game Elden Ring, hosting a competition in which a souvenir plot was the main prize. Highland Titles has also popped up in Oscar news with plots being included in the infamous nominee gift bags.  Regardless of how they rebrand, these business models must be scrutinised. When doubled-up with a conservation project, there is a lack of transparency and oversight with how these businesses operate and develop the land as nature reserves while also promising clients access to their “plot” and not releasing financial reports. In Scotland, these sales are seen as demeaning and criticise them for the commodification of the country. Most importantly, people do buy into these schemes believing that they legitimately did confer some form of rights and ownership, whether it is a square of unsightly land in Scotland or naming a star millions of light years away. Given that the Court of Lord Lyon does receive applications for a coat of arms for these plots, these schemes are a lot less fun and a lot more exploitative.

Until these companies engage in more honest advertising practices, skeptics in NZ can make complaints to the ASA or to the content provider and social media outlet if and when these schemes are promoted.

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