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Russian 'deep fakes' videos may toss 2020 election into chaos — even destabilize society, officials fear


The technology "produces high-quality audio and video of individuals saying things they never said or doing things they never did."

Russian President Vladimir Putin — and perhaps other anti-American entities — will use "deep fakes" technology to toss the 2020 presidential election into chaos and even destabilize society, U.S. officials at a national security forum said. (Photo by Ricardo Ceppi/Getty Images)

They're called "deep fakes" — and apparently they're pretty scary.

Russian President Vladimir Putin — and perhaps other anti-American entities — will use "deep fakes" technology to toss the 2020 presidential election into chaos and even destabilize society, the Washington Times reported, citing U.S. officials at a high-level national security forum.

The tech uses a "deep-learning algorithm technology" that "produces high-quality audio and video of individuals saying things they never said or doing things they never did," the Times reported, adding that the resulting media will be "virtually indistinguishable from real footage, mimicking voices, speaking patterns, facial expressions and surroundings to a frighteningly realistic degree."

Officials said negative consequences — even to democracy — could be potentially endless, the paper said.

Now what?

Lawmakers said cooperation between the military, the tech community, and Congress is necessary to battle against "deep fakes" technology, the Times reported.

"It's going to destroy human lives, it's going to roil financial markets, and it might well spur military conflicts around the world," U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Nebraska) said during the annual Texas National Security Forum in Austin, the paper noted. "When deep fakes technology produces audio or video of a global leader saying something or ordering some attack that didn't happen, you're going to have to actually have flesh-and-blood humans who have a little bit of a reservoir of public trust who can step to a camera together and say, 'I know that looked really real on your TV screen. But it wasn't real.'"

More from the paper:

The use of deep fakes — examples of which have been put together by researchers at American universities who say it's vital to understand the technology before it is weaponized against the U.S. — represents an escalation by Russia, officials say.

Moscow's 2016 strategy to influence American elections centered on planting fake news stories and using hosts of bots to bombard Twitter, Facebook and other social media outlets with content. That approach continued this year, contributing to a broader worsening of the relationship between Washington and Moscow.

U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis noted Saturday that Russia did attempt to interfere in the 2018 midterms, but that America won't tolerate its interference. China may be another nation that uses tech to distort the truth, the Times said.

"Our adversaries don't conduct information warfare as much as a war on information, undercutting legitimacy of all comers, including governments," Gen. Raymond A. Thomas, head of U.S. Special Operations Command, told the national security conference Friday, the paper added.

The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency — the Pentagon's research arm (DARPA) — spent at least $68 million over the last two years developing ways to detect and fight back against deep fakes, the Times said, citing data obtained by the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.

Where have we seen 'deep fakes'?

"Deep fakes" have been used to create phony sex videos featuring actress Gal Gadot, among others, the Times reported, adding that Wall Street Journal editors said last month they've started a "internal deep fakes task force" to help reporters and editors deep fakes clips.

What else may be coming?

"We can expect to see deep fakes used in other abusive, individually targeted ways, such as undermining a rival's relationship with fake evidence of an affair or an enemy's career with fake evidence of a racist comment," University of Texas law professor Robert Chesney and University of Maryland law professor Danielle Citron wrote in a recent post for Lawfareblog.com, the paper said.

They added, according to the Times: "Blackmailers might use fake videos to extract money or confidential information from individuals who have reason to believe that disproving the videos would be hard. All of this will be awful. But there's more to the problem than these individual harms. Deep fakes also have potential to cause harm on a much broader scale — including harms that will impact national security and the very fabric of our democracy."

More from the paper:

The possibilities seem endless. Mr. Chesney and Ms. Citron cited some potential uses, including fabricated videos of officials taking bribes, making racist remarks or meeting with criminals; fake footage of soldiers slaughtering civilians in a war zone, thereby undermining public support for the conflict; or phony video of a nuclear strike, biological attack or natural disaster, creating panic among the public.

U.S. Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) — vice chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence — told those at the security forum that he believes Russia will "marry cyber and disinformation," combining more traditional cyberhacking with deep fakes technology to create frighteningly personal attacks, the Times said.

"They will go out and use cybertools to hack into an entity like an Equifax company that has troves of personal information on lots of Americans, contact us with personal information that makes you think, 'Oh, my gosh, I should open this because they know my mom's maiden name or know my Social Security number,'" Warner told the crowd, according to the paper.

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