Foreign Intelligence

Election Security: US Lawmakers Concerned “Deepfake” Videos Are the Next Stage of Information Warfare Ahead of 2020 Election

By: Jack Kall

The nation’s attention has turned to the 2020 election with the 2018 midterms in the rear view mirror. Accordingly, an increasing number of US lawmakers are concerned that a form of video manipulation known as “Deepfakes” will be the next stage of information warfare. In short, Deepfake videos are hyper-realistic manipulated videos made using artificial intelligence technology. The videos are often convincing enough that it can be difficult to even tell what has or has not been manipulated. To raise attention, BuzzFeed published this video of Barack Obama delivering a public service announcement regarding dangers of the technology—except it was actually Jordan Peele.

Election security is a more important issue for US voters in the wake of Russian-led election interference in the 2016 Presidential Election. A recent Pew Research poll found that 55% of Americans say they are not too (37%) or not at all (17%) confident that elections systems are secure from hacking and other technological threats. Republicans (59% at least somewhat confident in security) express greater confidence than Democrats (34%), which is a reversal of attitudes from 2016.

While the threat of deepfakes has not garnered the same attention as Russian interference and other forms of “Fake News,” some US legislators are beginning to vocalize concern. This past September, three members of the House of Representatives—including the new chair of the House Intelligence Committee Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA)—sent a letter expressing concern that the “technology could soon be deployed by malicious foreign actors” to the Director of National Intelligence Dan Coates. Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) also displayed concern for the technology at a Senate Intelligence Committee by describing a scenario in which a deepfake video is released just before an election and going viral before analysts could determine it was fake.

While concern is rising, there is still a shortage of solutions. In January 2019, House Democrats unveiled several election security measures, but lacked solutions for deepfakes. The same month, Brookings Institute released advice for campaigns to protect against deepfakes. It remains to be seen whether Brooking Institute’s advice to protect infrastructure, add two-factor authentication, film the candidate at speaking engagements, and replicate a classified environment—while important general advice—is enough to protect against this ever-evolving deepfake technology.

Supreme Court Denies Request to Review FISC Court Order.

by Erin Fleury, UMN Law Student, MJLST Staff

Last week, the Supreme Court denied a petition requesting a writ of mandamus to review a decision that ordered Verizon to turn over domestic phone records to the National Security Administration (“NSA”) (denial available here). The petition alleged that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (“FISC”) exceeded its authority because the production of these types of records was not “relevant to an authorized investigation . . . to obtain foreign intelligence information not concerning a United States person.” 50 U.S.C. § 1861(b)(2)(A).

The Justice Department filed a brief with the Court that challenged the standing of a third party to request a writ of mandamus from the Supreme Court for a FISC decision. The concern, however, is that telecommunication companies do not adequately fight to protect their users’ privacy concerns. This apprehension certainly seems justified considering the fact that no telecom provider has yet challenged the legality of an order to produce user data. Any motivation to fight these orders for data is further reduced by the fact that telecommunication companies can obtain statutory immunity to lawsuits by their customers based on turning over data to the NSA. 50 USC § 1885a. If third parties cannot ask a higher court to review a decision made by the FISC, then the users whose information is being given to the NSA may have their rights limited without any recourse short of legislative overhaul.

Unfortunately, like most denials for hearing, the Supreme Court did not provide its reasoning for denying the request. The question remains though; if the end users cannot object to these orders (and may not even be aware that their data was turned over in the first place), and the telecommunication companies have no reason to, is the system adequately protecting the privacy interests of individual citizens? Or can the FISC operate with impunity as long as the telecom carriers do not object?