The Tools of Espionage Are Going Mainstream

Great-power deception is no longer designed just to trick a handful of leaders. It’s designed to trick us all.

Mark Zuckerberg speaks at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain, on February 21, 2016.  (Albert Gea / Reuters)

Deception is getting real. This month, lawyers for Facebook, Twitter, and Google testified before Congress, facing hard questions and ugly truths about Russia’s online operations to inflame American divisions and undermine American democracy. The story keeps getting worse. Twitter has now found more than 2,700 accounts controlled by Russians and 36,000 suspected Russian “bots”—accounts that automatically generated 1.4 million election-related tweets receiving 288 million impressions during the final 10 weeks of the 2016 presidential election. Google has discovered that suspected Russian agents uploaded more than 1,000 YouTube videos about divisive social issues. And Facebook revealed that Kremlin-instigated content may have reached 126 million Americans. That’s more than a third of the U.S. population. Senate Intelligence Committee chairman Richard Burr even had his own Cuban missile crisis moment—bringing out the big posters to show the world smoking gun evidence of Russian duplicity. But instead of secret missile sites, his pictures displayed two popular Facebook groups: Heart of Texas and United Muslims of America.

Heart of Texas and United Muslims of America weren’t created by Texans or American Muslims. They were conjured up by Russia’s deceptively named “Internet Research Agency” to lure American followers. And lure them they did. In 2016, each group grew to more than 250,000 followers. Then Russia struck. Heart of Texas announced a “Stop Islamization of Texas” protest to be held on May 21, at noon, outside a Houston mosque. Muslims of America announced a “Save Islamic Knowledge” protest on its Facebook page for the same day, time, and place. The result: angry protests pitting real Americans against each other on the streets of Houston, all instigated by the Kremlin.

It used to be that great-power deception meant tricking leaders and leaving the rest of us out of it. D-Day victory hinged on convincing Hitler and his top military commanders that the allies would invade France at Pas-de-Calais, not Normandy. British intelligence staged an elaborate deception operation, turning nearly all of Germany’s spies into unwitting double agents and feeding them false information about invasion plans. The allies even invented a fictitious army called the First United States Army Group, led by Lieutenant General George Patton. This phantom force had dummy landing craft, fake oil storage depots, airfields, vehicle tracks and more—all to deceive any possible German observers or aerial reconnaissance. The deception worked so well, Hitler delayed sending reinforcements to Normandy even after the allies landed there because he was convinced it was a diversion, and that the real invasion would still be at Pas-de-Calais. As Winston Churchill famously remarked, the truth had to be surrounded by a bodyguard of lies.

Cold War deception was also an elite affair. The Cuban missile crisis was the ultimate spy-on-spy moment. The Soviets went to great lengths to hide their plans for deploying nuclear missiles from everyone, even the Soviet ship crews carrying them. Captains were told only to head to coordinates in the Atlantic Ocean where they would unseal an envelope in the presence of a KGB officer. Inside was a note with the actual destination in Cuba. And just to make sure nobody else on board knew, the last sentence of the note read, “After familiarizing yourself with the contents of this document, destroy it.”

Meanwhile Khrushchev and his foreign minister, Andrei Gromyko, were busy reassuring President Kennedy that the Soviet military buildup in Cuba—which was obvious and heavily reported by U.S. intelligence agencies—was purely defensive in nature. They lied. And Kennedy believed them. Had American U-2 spy planes not flown over the Western part of Cuba when they did—at the insistence of CIA Director John McCone, who was convinced the Soviets couldn’t be trusted—Khrushchev’s surprise would have worked.

Today, deception is often not designed to trick a handful of leaders. It’s designed to trick us all. Deception has gone viral, thanks to global platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Google. These neutral platforms aren’t looking so neutral anymore. Russia showed just how easy it is to influence what millions of Americans see, who they like, who they hate, and what they do about it. We are moving to a world where the tip of the spear isn’t a soldier or a spy, but everyday citizens on their smart phones. Russia is playing the role of virtual Mephistopheles, encouraging our worst instincts, one tweet and Facebook friend at a time. Russia may be the first to embrace massive online geopolitical deception, but it is unlikely to be the only one.

And that’s not even the really bad news.

Recent advances in artificial intelligence are making deception even more realistic. Tweets and rally notices on Facebook pages are stone-age tools compared to what’s coming. Deception 2.0 will use images and videos that will look, sound, and feel exactly like the real thing. Just last month, the graphics chip maker Nvidia released a study showing how an AI technique called “generative adversarial networks” can create life-like photos of nonexistent celebrities. Essentially, one computer algorithm tries to generate a realistic image of something while another algorithm tries to decide whether that image is real or fake. Other researchers at the University of Washington and Stanford are making significant advances in creating fake video using artificial intelligence and lip syncing.

What does all this have to do with American national security? A lot. Words are good at influencing ideas. Images are good at influencing emotions. Hollywood has made billions by manipulating our feelings with images, 90 minutes at a time, even though we’re eating popcorn, sitting in a room full of coughing strangers, and know that what we’re seeing isn’t real. If you’re like me, even animated characters (Why can’t Wilbur save Charlotte? Why? Why?) can make you cry every time.

Now consider how much more you could be manipulated by images you actually believed were real. After all, it was photos that set off the Cuban missile crisis. While human assets were reporting suspicious-looking cylindrical objects being transported on trucks and extreme secrecy precautions at Cuban ports, human sources were also reporting all sorts of other things—most of it nonsense. Pictures really were worth a thousand words.

Today, real-looking images could just as easily set off real crises on false pretenses. The possibilities get scary fast.

Here are just a few: A video shows Iranian President Hassan Rouhani discussing a clandestine nuclear weapons program that violates the Iran deal. It’s fake but there’s no way to know it, and Rouhani’s protestations cannot be believed.

A surveillance camera captures footage of a terrorist attack in an American shopping mall, with a clearly identified attacker. Twitter explodes with first-hand accounts. A manhunt is quickly mobilized. Only the attack never happened, and the “terrorist” is a local Pakistani-American college student.

In a tight European parliamentary election, just days before voters head to the polls, fake video surfaces depicting a majority party leader molesting a child. He denies it, but the evidence appears incontrovertible.

Or imagine that someone creates fake photographs showing the families of U.S. troops evacuating from South Korea—which Kim Jong Un mistakes as preparations for an American attack, so he launches a preemptive nuclear strike on Seoul. If you think that’s far-fetched, think again. On September 21, with tensions between Washington and Pyongyang running high, someone actually did send fake text and social media messages ordering U.S. military families and non-essential civilian personnel to evacuate the Korean peninsula. U.S. Forces Korea had to issue a notification to ignore the fake “Official Alert.”

Russia’s online influence operations are just the beginning. Deception has always been part of espionage and warfare. But now deception is getting big time in real-time—coming through your cell phone and social media friends. And that’s a whole new world.