Amy Zegart, a Stanford University expert on intelligence and national security, makes a simple but compelling point in a short, gripping Atlantic article called “The tools of espionage are going mainstream.” Once upon a time, Zegart argues, national leaders employed military deception and espionage techniques to trick the leaders of other countries. Now, deception has become a weapon that targets civilians. “We are moving to a world,” Zegart writes, “where the tip of the spear isn’t a soldier or a spy, but everyday citizens on their smart phones. … Russia may be the first to embrace massive online geopolitical deception, but it is unlikely to be the only one.”
Worse, deception campaigns will get more dangerous as technology continues to advance. For example, it may soon be possible to create fake videos, indistinguishable from the real thing, that show people saying or doing things that they never said or did. Zegart asks us to imagine that Hassan Rouhani, president of Iran, is “caught on film” discussing a clandestine nuclear program that doesn’t really exist; that a Pakistani-American college student is filmed perpetrating a terror attack at a mall, except that the attack never happened and the student has done nothing more nefarious than to visit the library; or that Kim Jong-un is deceived by visual “evidence” into believing that US citizens are being evacuated from South Korea, presumably in preparation for an attack on the north.
These are not comforting scenarios. As Zegart writes, “[D]eception is getting big time in real-time—coming through your cell phone and social media friends. And that’s a whole new world.”