Most of the many reasons that meeting alone with Vladimir Putin was a bad idea for President Trump are pretty old and well-known facets of political life. However, one reason is actually rather new: Deepfakes.
[Deepfakes are] a sophisticated type of software that makes it possible to superimpose one person’s face onto another’s body and manipulate voice recordings, creating fake videos that look and sound real. Hollywood studios have long used computer-generated imagery (CGI) to, say, create fleeting appearances of dead actors. But the process used to be prohibitively expensive and laborious. Today, the technology has improved so much that highly realistic visual and audio fakery can be produced by anyone with a powerful home computer.
The security implications of this are not yet well-understood by most people. Essentially, we can no longer trust what we hear or see on audio or video. At all. Let’s take this scenario posited by The Hill
Asked by MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell whether Putin could have recorded the meeting without Trump’s knowledge, Coats hesitated before responding: “That risk is always there.”
So, what is that risk, really?
If Putin releases a tape where Trump claims the US will support the annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation, are we supposed to believe it to be real? What if Trump points to the existence of deepfakes as plausible deniability that he didn’t really say something he actually promised a foreign leader in private? In either of these situations, how will people who aren’t aware of the capabilities of this technology react?
What recourse do we have to protect against this? Ultimately, this technology is only going to get better over time. I wouldn’t be surprised to see something like this possible in real time within 5-10 years. Pause for a moment to imagine what this means. If something like Tank Man happened today, but the Chinese government was able to broadcast live pictures from multiple angles showing the man wasn’t there at all, how would people react? Moreover, does the existence of deepfake technology impair your ability to believe a Western photographer’s photo of the event? Imagine if Trump (or some similar authoritarian) starting banging his fist on the table claiming that deepfakes were pervasively used by CNN, the New York Times, and other “Fake News” outlets. How do we react?
If the 2016 Presidential election and the Brexit vote demonstrate anything, they demonstrate how easily modern technology can be used to manipulate whole populations. Deepfakes will only make this worse, and I don’t see much discussion about the way forward.