by Austin Bay
July 30, 2019
Forgeries, malign innuendo, smears, hoaxes and outright lies are primal psychological and emotional weapons. From lovers' quarrels to great-power warfare, they are innate factors in human conflict.
Unfortunately, we have entered the age of deep fakes (aka deepfakes), where new digital "bottles" can instantaneously, pervasively and persuasively deliver vintage lies and classic smears.
Deep fakes possess the immediate see-hear semblance of authentic imagery and audio. Digital Svengalis create them using manipulative techniques to fundamentally alter imagery (still and video) and audio tracks. They may combine or superimpose images.
For example, your face can be superimposed on Godzilla's body; as the monster bashes Tokyo, your voice complains about Japanese cars. If it can be done, it has been done: The heads of well-known celebrities have already been superimposed on the bodies of porn actors. Presto! Deep-fake porn videos.
Deep fakes, however, are more than bad jokes and acts of felony libel. Deep fakes are tools for delivering high-speed and pervasive disinformation. Disinformation is the strategist's term for gossip, rumors, lies, deceit, agitation propaganda (agitprop) and other deception operations. A deep-fake product people believe for even a day could create psychological, political and diplomatic vulnerabilities an American adversary might exploit.
Psychological disruption and deceit aren't new threats. China's eminent sixth-century B.C. strategist, Gen. Sun Tzu, had a poet's knack for the epigram -- the ability to convey the complex in a succinct phrase. "All warfare is based upon deception," he wrote. Italy's Renaissance philosopher of coercive pragmatism, Niccolò Machiavelli, declared, "Though fraud in other activities may be detestable, in the management of war it is laudable and glorious, and he who overcomes the enemy by fraud is as much to be praised as he who does by force."
In the 21st century, however, fake news with geopolitical consequence spreads at the speed of light. Suddenly, the fake dominates. In 2017, a computer hacker placed false news reports on a Qatari internet site. The reports appeared authentic. They included statements attributed to Qatar's emir. Other websites spread the falsehoods. The false reports exacerbated an ongoing dispute between Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Cui bono? Who benefits from the crime? Iran and Russia come to mind.
The U.S. Senate and the Pentagon are concerned about the political and national security threat that deep fakes pose. What if the 2017 Qatar incident had included a deep fake video of the Qatari official threatening Saudi Arabia? Recently, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee recommended DHS monitor deep fakes and provide the Senate an annual report.
Here's a theoretical deep fake video that might just advance an American adversary's geo-strategic goals: Donald Trump's face is superimposed on the body of man standing in the hallway of a Trump hotel. Digital techniques reconfigure the body and add a golf outfit. The deep-fake figure appears to speak unguardedly with a pal off camera. A simulated Trump voice says: "I don't care what Congress thinks. We're gonna get out of NATO in a year." The deep fake's mouth movements precisely match the voice track.
The scene looks palpably real, the president with a Queens accent caught in a candid moment. But the video is totally fake. The disinformation team that concocted the lie cunningly leverages the cognitive biases of Americans and Europeans who believe Trump despises NATO. Those biases guarantee the video goes viral. CNN can't resist.
Even if the entire U.S. government screams fake, two weeks of diplomatic and media chaos will ensue. NATO suffers political damage.
Cui bono? During the Cold War, the Soviet Union routinely conducted maskirovka ("masking") and dezinformatsiya operations. Soviet disinformation programs were designed to seed anger and incite distrust, with the goal of enhancing Communist power and defeating the free world.
For the same reasons, 21st-century Russia and communist China employ disinformation operations. The Senate's concern is well founded.