Deepfake videos are becoming harder to identify and may threaten the 2020 election.
If some nefarious person has decent photos of your face, you too (like so many unfortunate celebrities) could appear to be the star of a pornographic video. If someone has recordings of your voice (from your website videos, CLEs you have presented, speeches you’ve given, etc.), they can do a remarkably good job of simulating your spoken words and, just as an example, call your office manager and authorize a wire transfer—something the office manager may be willing to do because of “recognizing” your voice.
Unnerving? Yes, but it is today’s reality. And if you don’t believe how “white hot” deepfakes are, just put a Google alert on that word and you’ll be amazed at the volume of daily results.
Political and Legal Implications
We have already seen deepfakes used in the political area (the “drunk” Nancy Pelosi deepfake, a reference to which was tweeted by the president), and many commentators worry that deepfake videos will ramp up for the 2020 election. Some of them, including the Pelosi video, are referred to as “cheapfakes” because they are so poorly done (basically running the video at 75 percent speed to simulate drunkenness), but that really doesn’t matter if large numbers of voters believe it’s real. And the days when you could tell a deepfake video by the fact that the person didn’t blink are rapidly vanishing as the algorithms have gotten smarter.
In August 2019, the Democratic National Committee wanted to demonstrate the potential threat to the 2020 election posed by deepfake videos, so it showed, at the 2019 Def Con conference, a video of DNC Chair Tom Perez. The audience was told he was unable to come but would appear via Skype. Perez came on screen and apologized for not being in attendance—except that he had said no such thing. It was a deepfake.
Another deepfake video surfaced of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg in June 2019, with him supposedly saying: “Imagine this for a second. One man, with total control of billions of people’s stolen data. All their secrets, their lives, their futures. I owe it all to Spectre. Spectre showed me that whoever controls the data controls the future.” It was hardly a credible fake, but since he appeared to be talking to CBS, CBS asked that Facebook remove the video, complaining about the unauthorized use of its trademark.
Deepfakes are capable of influencing elections and perhaps the rule of law, which should certainly compel the attention of lawyers, especially since many lawyers regard the rule of law as already under fire.
Legislation has been introduced in Congress to do something about deepfakes to prevent an impact on our elections. It has gone nowhere. The First Amendment is often cited as an obstacle to legislation, as is the fair use provision of copyright law, existing state privacy, extortion and defamation laws, and the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, all for different reasons.
The Malicious Deep Fake Prohibition Act, introduced in Congress, would make it a federal crime to create a deepfake when doing so would facilitate illegal conduct. It was not well received. The DEEPFAKES Accountability Act requires mandatory watermarks and clear labeling on all deepfakes (oh sure, the bad guys will respect that law!). It contains a very broad definition of deepfakes, which almost certainly would guarantee that it would face a constitutional challenge. In short, we haven’t gotten close to figuring out how to deal with deepfakes via legislation.
And yet, according to a June 2019 Pew Research Center survey, nearly two-thirds of Americans view altered videos and images as problematic and think something should be done to stop them. According to the survey, “Roughly three-quarters of U.S. adults (77 percent) say steps should be taken to restrict altered images and videos that are intended to mislead.” The survey indicated that the majority of Republicans and Democrats believe that.
What Is a Deepfake Video?
No worries, we’ll get to deepfake audios later. The audios are a new phenomenon in the toolbox of criminals, but deepfake videos have become—quickly—terrifyingly mainstream. Remember the “old” days of video manipulation when we were all amazed, watching Forrest Gump as he met President Kennedy 31 years after the president’s assassination? Ah, the days of innocence!
We are writing here for lawyers, so we are not going into the weeds of how true deepfakes are produced. It is a remarkably complex process when well done. But we can give you a 10,000-foot picture of what deepfakes are and how, in vastly simplified terms, they are created.
We actually like the Wikipedia definition:
“Deepfakes (a portmanteau of ‘deep learning’ and ‘fake’) is a technique for human image synthesis based on artificial intelligence. It is used to combine and superimpose existing images and videos onto source images or videos using a machine learning technique known as generative adversarial network. The phrase ‘deepfake’ was coined in 2017.
Because of these capabilities, deepfakes have been used to create fake celebrity pornographic videos or revenge porn. Deepfakes can also be used to create fake news and malicious hoaxes.”
If you thought Photoshop could do bad things, think of deepfakes as Photoshop on steroids!
Deepfake video is created by using two competing (and yet collaborative) AI systems—a generator and a discriminator. The generator makes the fake video, and then the discriminator examines it and determines whether the clip is fake. If the discriminator correctly identifies a fake, the generator learns to avoid doing the same thing in the clip it creates next. The generator and discriminator form something called a generative adversarial network (GAN). The first step in establishing a GAN is to identify the desired output and create a training dataset for the generator. Once the generator begins creating an acceptable level of output, video clips can be fed to the discriminator. As the generator gets better at creating fake video clips, the discriminator gets better at spotting them. Conversely, as the discriminator gets better at spotting fake video, the generator gets better at creating them. If thinking about that makes your head spin, you are not alone.
Yes, it is technical and not especially easy to understand, though there are (of course) Ikea-like DIY toolkits that will do most of the advanced work for you.
Hany Farid on Deepfakes
Hany Farid, a professor who is often called the father of digital image forensics, is a special hero to the authors. His incredible work on detecting altered images has inspired us for years. Here is what Farid says about deepfakes:
“The technology to create sophisticated fakes is growing rapidly. Every three to six months, we see dramatic improvements in the quality and sophistication of the fakes. And, these tools are becoming increasingly easier to use by the average person.
Deepfakes (image, audio and visual) can have broad implications ranging from nonconsensual pornography to disrupting democratic elections, sowing civil discord and violence, and fraud. And more generally, if we eventually live in a world where anything can be faked, how will we trust anything that we read or see online?”
That’s a darn good question for which, at the moment, no one has a satisfactory answer.
Farid doesn’t believe, and we agree, that we can truly control the deepfakes situation. To exercise any degree of control, according to him, “will require a multifaceted response from developing better detection technology to better policies on the large social media platforms, a better educated public and potentially legislation.”
New photo and video verification platforms like Truepic (full disclosure: Farid is an advisor to the company) use blockchain technology to create and store digital signatures for authentically shot videos as they are being recorded, which makes them easier to verify later. But today, that is the exception and not the reality.
By the way, sharing deepfake revenge porn is now a crime in Virginia (effective July 1, 2019), the first state to make it a crime. We hope many more will follow. How do we combat the spread of $50 apps like DeepNude (thankfully defunct as we write, but there will be others), which could undress women in a single click? DeepNude was trained on more than 10,000 images of nude women and would provide the undressed woman within 30 seconds—and of course the image could be shared to smear reputations (sending it to the woman’s employer or friends and family) or to post online as revenge porn.
How Do We Tell If a Video Is a Deepfake?
Researchers can now examine videos for signs they’re fake, such as shadows and blinking patterns. In June 2019, a new paper from several digital forensics experts outlined a more foolproof approach that relies on training a detection algorithm to recognize the face and head movements of a particular person, thereby showing when that person’s face has been imposed onto the head and body of someone else. The drawback is that this approach only works when the system has been trained to recognize particular people, but it might at least keep presidential candidates safe from attack.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) announced in August 2019 that it would undertake an initiative focused on stopping malicious deepfakes from spreading. Researchers from the Semantic Forensics program, or SemaFor, plan to teach computers to use common sense to catch deepfakes. We fear that DARPA may be a bit late to the game. As we write, the internet is replete with stories of how, when audio is part of a deepfake video, our new best friends might be mice. At the University of Oregon’s Institute of Neuroscience, researchers are training mice to detect speech irregularities and sounds that differentiate words. The animals’ accuracy was 80 percent, which could offer useful insights when paired with AI’s skill at detecting deepfakes.
Progress has been impressive. Still, the deepfakes are getting better all the time. Are we ready for a barrage of deepfake videos before the 2020 election? The almost unanimous answer of the experts is “no.”
To return to Farid’s colorful expressions of futility, “We are outgunned. The number of people working on the video-synthesis side, as opposed to the detector side, is 100 to 1.” Those are daunting odds.
As if deepfake videos weren’t driving us crazy trying to discern the real from the unreal, now voice-swapping has begun to be used in artificial intelligence cyberattacks on business, allowing attackers to gain access to corporate networks and persuade employees to authorize a money transfer.
Business email compromise (BEC) attacks have become woefully common. Generally, they start with a phishing email to get into an enterprise network and look at the payment systems. They are looking for the employees authorized to wire funds and the entities that they usually wire funds to.
It is a theatrical game, as they emulate the executive, scaring or persuading the employee. This is really ramping up the success of the acts, as using the phone to impersonate an executive is a powerful tool.
As with video deepfakes, the AI has GANs that constantly teach and train each other, perfecting the outcome.
Also emulating the fake videos, the bad guys come up with a convincing voice model by giving training data to the algorithm. The data might come from speeches, presentations or law firm website videos featuring the voice of the executive. Why is deepfake audio more flexible? Well, with video, there needs to be a baseline video. Not so with audio deepfakes. Once there is a credible audio profile created, the attacker can use “text-to-speech” software and create any script desired for the phony voice to read. This means you don’t need to have an exact recording of the words you want to use in the deepfake audio.
Creating deepfake audio is not easy or cheap—it takes time and money, which is a bar to many attackers. The most advanced of these systems can create a voice profile by listening to just 20 minutes of audio, but in most cases the process is longer and resource intensive.
Alexander Adam, a data scientist at AI training lab Faculty, tells CPO Magazine that he estimates that you can spend thousands of dollars training a very convincing deepfake audio model. Added to the mix? Background noise of some kind—traffic noises, for instance—that sort of gloss over imperfections in the audio. We’ve got to admit—these people are crafty.
How Can We Defeat Audio Deepfakes?
Whoever can authorize wire payments might want to take a look at the audio footprints they have in the public realm to assess their degree of possible risk. If the risk is considerable, they should tighten requirements before funds are sent.
Naturally, researchers are working out ways to review the audio of a call authorizing the release of funds to assess the probability that it is real or fake. We are not sure yet about the implementation of a certification system for interorganizational calls, but it’s a possibility. Another possibility would use blockchain technology in combination with voice-over-IP calls in order to provide caller authentication. As you can imagine, it is (as they say) complicated.
Defenses against these attacks summon all the rules of cybersecurity, including the wisdom of educating employees. There is little knowledge among employees about these deepfakes, particularly the audio fakes. After training, employees are much more apt to be suspicious of an unusual payment request or—another frequent ploy —a request for network access. Education can motivate an employee to question an unusual payment or network access request. Putting additional verification methods in place is wise.
Baseline BEC defenses such as filtering and authentication frameworks for email can stop these attacks in their tracks by snagging phishing emails before they’re delivered. As always, require multifactor wherever you can. We always advise law firms to require that an employee who receives a wire funds request call the authorizing party back—at a known good number, never at a number given in the audio message. Verify everything!
We tried to keep the information above as readable and informative as possible. The truth is, very few lawyers understand the risks of deepfake audios and videos and how to address them. More and more, we are asking law firms to accept a homework assignment, which is now an important piece of the ever-evolving cybersecurity threat. While it is fairly expensive to generate credible deepfake audio and video today, as the cost of computational horsepower goes down, we’re sure that deepfakes will become more affordable to the masses.
Sharon D. Nelson, Esq., is the President of Sensei Enterprises, Inc., a digital forensics, cybersecurity and information technology firm in Fairfax, Virginia. Ms. Nelson is the author of the noted electronic evidence blog, Ride the Lightning and is a co-host of the Legal Talk Network podcast series called “The Digital Edge: Lawyers and Technology” as well as “Digital Detectives.” She is a frequent author (seventeen books published by the ABA and hundreds of articles) and speaker on legal technology, cybersecurity and electronic evidence topics. She was the President of the Virginia State Bar June 2013 – June 2014 and a past President of the Fairfax Law Foundation.
John W. Simek, Sensei Enterprises
John W. Simek is vice president of the digital forensics, information technology and cybersecurity firm Sensei Enterprises. He is a nationally known expert in cybersecurity and digital forensics. John is a Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP) and holds multiple other technical certifications. He was a co-chair of ABA TECHSHOW 2019 and a frequent author (16 books and hundreds of articles) and speaker on technology, cybersecurity and electronic evidence topics.