We also know that Russia’s deception efforts in 2016 are already looking primitive in comparison with what’s next. Thanks to advances in artificial intelligence, “deepfake” photographs, videos, and audios are becoming highly realistic, difficult to authenticate, widely available, and easy to use. In May, anonymous users doctored a video to make House Speaker Nancy Pelosi appear drunk. It went viral on Facebook. When the social-media giant refused to take it down after it went viral, two artists and a small technology start-up created a deepfake of Mark Zuckerberg and posted it on Instagram. In it, the phony Zuckerberg brags, on what looks like a CBS News program, about his power to rule the world. “Imagine this for a second: one man with total control of billions of people’s stolen data,” he says. “Whoever controls the data, controls the future.” Just last week, The Wall Street Journal reported the first known use of deepfake audio to impersonate a voice in a cyber heist. An executive at a British-based energy firm thought he was talking to his boss when in reality it was an AI-based imitation, right down to the lilt and slight German accent. The fraudulent call resulted in the transfer of $243,000.
The potential for deepfake deceptions in global politics gets scary very quickly. Imagine a realistic-seeming video showing an invasion, or a clandestine nuclear program, or policy makers discussing how to rig an election. Soon, even seeing won’t be believing. Deception has always been part of espionage and warfare, but not like this.
Meanwhile, old methods of intelligence gathering are now being democratized. Spying used to be expensive and exclusive; when satellites that intercepted signals and images from space took billions of dollars and tremendous know-how to operate, the United States could afford to maintain a clear technological advantage. Now space is becoming commercialized, with satellites so cheap that middle-schoolers can launch them. Secrets, while still important, aren’t what they used to be: When Russia invaded Ukraine, the best intelligence came from social-media photos posted by the troops. And when U.S. Navy SEALs raided Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan, a local resident heard funny noises and inadvertently ended up live-tweeting the operation.
As in the 1990s, many in the intelligence community are sounding alarms and trying to make changes. A 2018 report by Michael Brown and Pavneet Singh of the Defense Intelligence Unit warned that China’s venture-capital investment in key American start-up companies was designed to give China the edge in technologies for commercial and military advantage. In a report in January, Dan Coats, then the director of national intelligence, told Congress, “For 2019 and beyond, the innovations that drive military and economic competitiveness will increasingly originate outside the United States, as the overall US lead in science and technology (S&T) shrinks; the capability gap between commercial and military technologies evaporates; and foreign actors increase their efforts to acquire top talent, companies, data, and intellectual property via licit and illicit means.”