Deepfake videos spread by malign foreign actors will be advanced enough to fool people by the 2020 U.S. presidential election, according to former North Atlantic Treaty Organization Secretary Anders Fogh Rasmussen and former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff. That means footage of well-known personalities, including politicians and celebrities, could be doctored into fake videos that look real.
“The technology behind meddling is about to morph again into the next wave,” Rasmussen said. “Artificial intelligence continues to revolutionize the playbook, flooding the Internet with realistic deepfake videos… And this is not science fiction. By our estimates, this technology will be convincing enough by the time of the 2020 presidential election.”
The pair, who spoke at the Hudson Institute in Washington on Friday, are the founders of the Transatlantic Commission on Election Integrity. They warned that election interference is quickly becoming more nuanced.
Chertoff said that the Defense Department has been long aware of the threat of deepfake videos, with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency providing grants to a number of academic institutions to create deterrence software.
“This will take what is sometimes described as ‘fake news’ to a new level,” said Chertoff, who served as the second DHS secretary during the administration of George W. Bush from 2005 to 2009. “The use of artificial intelligence to collect, for example, thousands or hundreds of thousands of images of well-known people, video interview, and from that collect and assemble the ability to create a completely fabricated video and audio image, which could be made to say something very damaging.”
The formation of the commission was announced at the Copenhagen Democracy Summit in June with a mission to awaken western democracies to the size and scale of the threat.
“Quite cleverly, the Russians understood once you’ve launched these issues into the ecosystem, the mainstream media will often amplify them,” Chertoff said. “They, in a sense, can’t avoid the fact that it’s newsworthy, and also they’re attracted by the fact that these stories tend to get a lot of viewers or listeners, and that is revenue. And so at the bottom of a lot of the vulnerability that we have in this space is the fact that is possible to make money by propagating the stories on social media or even on mainstream media in the spread of false narratives.”
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The level of interference in the 2018 midterm elections is still the subject of separate investigations by special counsel Robert Mueller and the Senate Intelligence Committee. In October, the Justice Department charged Elena Alekseevna Khusyaynova, 44, of St. Petersburg with election tampering as the operator of a $35 million budget — funded by Russian oligarch Yevgeniy Viktorovich Prigozhin — to create and maintain fake social media profiles to troll platforms and amplify discord within political factions in the U.S., Ukraine and against members of the European Union.
According to the Justice Department, some social media accounts “posted tens of thousands of messages, and had tens of thousands of followers.”
The commission’s newest member, Allan Rock, the former Canadian justice minister, said Russia clearly conducted a campaign influence operation in Canada’s last national election in 2015. He also said that Russia’s spread of misinformation against Canadian troops — sent by NATO in June to Latvia in the face of Russian aggression — is beginning to subside.
“When the Canadian battle group arrived in Latvia, they were met with a wall of social media telling lies about where they were living, the corruption of their leadership and other misinformation, which was intended to to really put a stigma on the Canadian presence,” Rock said. “We responded with our own social media campaign and with a public relations campaign, and more recently the Russian effort has diminished.”
Where Next? Ukraine
“With almost 20 elections between now and 2020 on both sides of the Atlantic, we must work to develop clear plans on how to defend those elections, starting with the European elections next May, where we believe several states will be vulnerable,” Rasmussen said. “Tech is part of the problem, but we believe that it should also be a part of the solution.”
The commission will oversee the upcoming Ukrainian presidential election in March 2019, Rasmussen said. The mission of the task force will be to monitor the elections, offer advice and sound the alarm when disinformation or other activities from foreign actors is discovered.
“At stake is whether the country continues to move forward with it reform program or if it falls backwards toward its post-Soviet legacy,” Rasmussen said. “And there can be no doubt that Russia has a stake in these elections.”
Chertoff, a member of the HSToday editorial board, said that people must become inoculated against such information operations.
“We are really dealing with an information conflict. I don’t quite want to say warfare because that’s very particular in terms of what it means,” he said. “And much as during the Cold War we tried to assemble responses to these kinds of new tools, we need to make this a significant national security priority.”