Politics and Policy:Deepfake technology a real threat

This article first appeared in The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on July 1, 2019 - July 07, 2019.
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I have never read Winston Groom’s novel Forrest Gump, but I have seen the movie of the same name numerous times and enjoyed every minute of it. According to Wikipedia, the movies differs substantially from the novel.

Released in 1994, the comedy-drama, with Tom Hanks in the starring role, tells the story of slow-witted but kind-hearted Gump from Alabama, who witnesses and unwittingly influences several historical events in the US in the 20th century.

I love everything about the film — from Hanks’ superb acting to the dialogue, cinematography, soundtrack and the works. But what I love most of all are the extensive visual effects used to incorporate Hanks into archived footage and develop other scenes.

Wikipedia tells us that by using computer-generated imagery, or CGI, it was possible to depict Gump meeting deceased personages and shaking hands with them. Hanks was first shot against a blue screen with reference markers so that he could be lined up with the archived footage.

Hence, we see Gump meeting, shaking hands and interacting with presidents John Kennedy and Lyndon B Johnson at the White House, and with John Lennon on a TV show — all shot after they had passed on. It is simply awesome. And mind you, this was 1990s technology. I remain fascinated till this day.

I remember that when Datuk Seri Dr Mahathir Mohamad launched TV3’s broadcasting centre in 1996, he casually asked (or was he just teasing) if Grand Brilliance Sdn Bhd, a subsidiary of TV3, “boleh buat macam Forrest Gump”.

Mahathir at the time was our fourth prime minister. Known to be interested in technology and all kinds of advancements, he wanted to know if the TV3 subsidiary, which was involved in film making, had the know-how to produce visual effects such as those he had seen in the Forrest Gump movie.

A Grand Brilliance management staff mumbled something I can’t recall, and that was that. After all, Mahathir had been rather casual in asking the question.

Fast forward to today and Mahathir, now our seventh prime minister, is still very keen on technology and stuff. He recently spoke about present-day “miracles in electronics”, which makes it possible to create all kinds of images.

People can have their pictures implicated in compromising situations, thanks to the miracles in electronics being used to fake images, he was quoted as saying.

I have just watched an Al Jazeera report by journalist Rob Reynolds, who stated that “the day has come when anyone with a basic knowledge of software could create a convincing, yet utterly fake, video of someone committing or putting a world leader in a compromising position”. The report was on what is known as “deepfake” technology.

Reynolds spoke to a master in technological shape-shifting. During the interview, his image was transformed into that of North Korean leader Kim Jung-un, and all it took was a couple of clicks on the keyboard.

The expert he spoke to, Hao Lin, said the implications for politics are disturbing as “you can actually create a very realistic video of someone saying things that person did not say”, meaning it is not only images that can be faked but also audio.

Even when a video has been identified as fake, the damage will already be done as “people see this and believe it and have it at the back of their minds”, according to an academic interviewed in the show.

According to Reynolds, experts are now saying that lawmakers had better start thinking seriously about regulating such technology. That will be no easy feat.

Or at the very least, they say, platforms like Facebook should be required to attach a warning label to posts, like what is being done with cigarette packets. It would be sort of an advice to users that they should watch with caution and be sceptical, and that any content they see is at their own peril.

Reynolds says the technology will soon reach a point where even the experts will be unable to spot doctored videos. That is frightening indeed.

He ends his report by saying that deepfake technology has raised questions about belief, trust and assumptions about reality, and that democratic values and global stability are at stake.

We can’t help but feel sorry, to put it mildly, for people who are not guilty of the things they are depicted as doing in doctored videos.

But then, those actually caught on video with their pants down can also claim to be victims of deepfake productions. Chances are, there will be people who will believe them because of all the talk about the technology.

In other words, even what is real can be passed off as fake. But as Reynolds puts it, there will come a time when even the experts will not be able to tell what has been doctored and what has not. Perhaps that time has come.

Which brings me to a story I heard a long time ago. It is about the president of a country who was on an official trip to one of the world’s superpowers. During his stay, he was seduced by a beautiful woman, apparently sent by the host government or the powers-that-be running the country.

He gave in to temptation and one thing led to another. Long story short, he had some intimate moments with the woman and the whole episode was filmed with a hidden camera.

The footage was then used in a bid to arm-twist the president into doing the bidding of his host, who threatened to leak it otherwise.

Faced with such a threat, the president told his host to go ahead and show it to the world because “my people will be proud of their president”.

Is it a true story or a figment of someone’s imagination? Until today, I do not know. —  By Mohsin Abdullah

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