'Reality wars': Deepfake technology and national security. Listen to the full On Point episode here.
Fake pictures, audio and video known as deepfakes can make celebrities say things they didn’t really say. Or make fake news look very real. But what happens when governments start using deepfakes against each other?
Take the story of Bill Browder.
In late 2008, Browder was in London, watching helplessly. His friend and lawyer, 37-year-old Sergei Magnitsky had been arrested and thrown into Moscow’s Butyrka prison.
BILL BROWDER: I mean, I can't even describe how upsetting it is to have somebody who works for you taken hostage because there's not a moment that you can feel happiness or relaxation or anything. Because you just know that while you're in your own bed, he's sleeping like a stone cot. While you're taking a shower, he's not allowed a shower, you know, while you're sitting in a warm room, he's sitting in a room nearly freezing to death.
CHAKRABARTI: This is Browder telling the story to the independent media company London Real. Up until 2005, Bill Browder had been a hedge fund manager who worked in Moscow and was among the largest private investors in all of Russia. But then his lawyer Sergei Magnitsky had found evidence implicating Russian officials in massive corruption, and also implicated them in having connections with the Russian mafia. Magnitsky was jailed, held for more than 350 days without trial and killed. Cause of death, blunt trauma to the head.
BROWDER: When he died, when they killed him. It was so far outside of my own expectations of the worst-case scenario. I couldn't even process that. It was just so horrible. Well, I processed it the only way I knew how. Which was to take responsibility, to go after the people that killed him.
CHAKRABARTI: Bill Browder pushed hard. He has constantly advocated for sanctions against Russia. And in 2012, he was instrumental in Congress's passing of the Magnitsky Act, which bars Russian human rights abusers from entering the United States. Browder is also one of Russian President Vladimir Putin's most forceful critics.
BROWDER: He is truly one of the most cynical, aggressive, evil dictators on the planet. He's a killer. And as a result of being his enemy and as a result of his homicidal tendencies, I've had to adjust my life very profoundly. I'm still here, which is a good thing.
CHAKRABARTI: As Bill Browder says, as a result of his constant criticism of Vladimir Putin, he has had to protect every aspect of his life, his physical safety, his financial safety, even his digital safety. Browder told us he's always on guard against any way in real life or online that Putin might get to him.
But he's also still criticizing the Russian regime, and most recently, he's been vocally supporting sanctions against Russia for its attack on Ukraine. So just a few weeks ago, Browder told us he wasn't surprised at all to get an email that seemed to come from former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, asking if Browder would schedule a call to talk about sanctions.
BROWDER: And so that seemed like a perfectly appropriate approach. The Ukrainians are very interested in sanctions against Russia. And so, I asked one of my team members to check it out, make sure it's legit, and then schedule it. I guess in the rush of things that were going on that week, this person didn't actually do anything other than call the number on the email. The person seemed very pleasant and reasonable. The call was scheduled, and I joined the call a little bit late.
I'm on like 10 minutes after it started because of some transportation issues, and apparently before I joined there was an individual who showed up on the screen saying, I'm the simultaneous translator. I'm going to be translating for former President Poroshenko. And there's an image of the Petro Poroshenko as I know him to look like. And he starts talking. It was odd because everybody else, as they were talking, you could see them talking.
And he was talking, and there was this weird delay, which I attributed to the simultaneous translation. It was as if you're watching some type of foreign film that was dubbed in. So, you know, the person's watching their lips move, it's not a correspondent with the words coming out of the mouth. Then it started getting a little odd. The Ukrainians, of course, are under fire, under attack by the Russians. And this fellow who portrayed himself as Petro Poroshenko started to ask the question, "Don't you think it would be better if we released some of the Russian oligarchs from sanctions if they were to give us a little bit of money?"
And it just seemed completely odd. And I gave the answer which I would give in any public setting. And I said, "No, I think the oligarchs should be punished to the full extent of the sanctions." And then he did something even stranger, which is he said, "Well, what do others think on this call?" And that's a very unusual thing. If it's sort of principal to principal, people don't usually ask the principal's aides what they think of the situation.
But my colleagues then chimed in and said various things, and I didn't think that it wasn't Poroshenko. I just thought, what an unimpressive guy. All these crazy and unhelpful ideas he's coming up with. No wonder he's no longer president. That was my first reaction. And then it got really weird. And as the call was coming to an end, he said, "I'd like to play the Ukrainian national anthem, and will you please put your hands on your heart?"
And again, we weren't convinced it wasn't Petro Poroshenko. And so, we all put our hands on our heart. Listening to the Ukrainian national anthem, I had some reaction that maybe this wasn't for real, but there he was this Petro Poroshenko guy. Then the final moment that I knew that this was a trick was when he put on some rap song, in Ukrainian, that I don't know what it said. And asked us to continue putting our hands on our hearts. And at that point, it was obvious that we had been tricked into some kind of deepfake.
Well, this was done by the Russians. Why would the Russians do this? Well, the Russians have been trying to discredit me for a long time, in every different possible way. And I think what they were hoping to do is to get me in some type of setting where I would say something differently than I had said publicly.
I've been under attack. Under death threat, under a kidnaping threat by the Russians since the Magnitsky Act was passed in 2012. And so the fact that they've actually penetrated my defenses is very worrying. The fact that we didn't pick it up is extremely worrying. And I think thankfully, I mean, in a certain way, this is a very cheap lesson. Because nobody was hurt, nobody was killed, nobody was kidnaped. You know, we all just looked a little stupid. And I'm glad they taught me this lesson because since then, we've dramatically heightened our vigilance and our security. Maybe we've just gotten too relaxed, but we aren't anymore.
CHAKRABARTI: That’s Bill Browder, a prominent critic of the Russian government. Browder says he and his staff finally confirmed the call was a deep fake when they double-checked the email address the meeting request came from. The domain traced back to Russia.