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Friday, June 21, 2024

The Era of Faked CCTV Has Truly Arrived

While Jamal Khashoggi was being carefully slaughtered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, a (clumsy and not much alike) man was trying out his shoes and clothes. The plan was for the imposter to appear on CCTV cameras while exiting the consulate and walk back to Khashoggi’s residence. The plan eventually blew up, because the Turkish intelligence had already bugged the consulate and recorded exactly what had happened. 

This was one of the first attempts by state actors to manipulate other states (or publics) through CCTV footage. However, recent actions of the Iranian state television have taken this type of information warfare to a different level.

To understand this, and the new threats that faked CCTV poses, it’s important to know the three types of information disorder: 1) misinformation, which refers to false information without intent to harm someone, 2) disinformation, which refers to false information with intent to harm, and 3) malinformation (borrowed from French), which is genuine information published with intent to harm, the clearest example of which is revenge porn or leaks.

Although disinformation has been extensively discussed as a powerful weapon employed by state and non-state actors, especially given the quick rise of AI tools capable of generating fabricated texts, sounds, and moving or still images, it is malinformation that creates the most potent opportunities for bad actors. Since most common forms of malinformation entail manipulating the context rather than the information itself, they can scale more cheaply and more quickly. It is often more difficult to debunk a manipulated context of a genuine piece of information.

The most prevalent instances of malinformation usually entail changing the context of true information or embedding it in a different one. For example, someone can take a real photo of a crime scene in one part of the world and, by a deliberate change of its date and location, link it to another event in a different part of the world in order to harm the reputation of a rival or adversarial group. In addition, deliberate mistranslations of someone’s words or the use of selective quotes can completely change the meaning of what was said. Malinformation can also arise from leaks and hacks that expose genuine but private information to the public. 

Most information warfare employs both disinformation and malinformation. Deepfakes, for example, are a fusion of both. An instance of this would be the well-known manipulated Obama speech, which intentionally used his authentic voice, facial expressions, and gestures to articulate entirely fabricated words. Sophisticated information operations usually combine disinformation and malinformation, too. Khashoggi's case may have been unsuccessful, but the intricate case of Nika Shakarami during the recent Iran protests deserves detailed examination.

Nika Shakarami was a 17-year-old girl who lost her life during the September 2022 protests over the death of Mahsa Amini in police custody. Nika, a high school dropout, had left her home in a western province and joined her mom’s sister in a working-class neighborhood in the south of Tehran. She worked in one of the dozens of cafés in central Tehran where university students hang out.

Her disappearance was announced by her aunt in the first few days of the protests. Since there were already photos and videos of her at the protests, many suspected that she had been killed by the aggressive riot police, who did not hesitate to brutally use rubber batons on the heads of young male and female protestors. The regime was apprehensive about being blamed for the death of another young woman like Mahsa, since this would likely trigger a massive surge in street protests. There were a couple of other young girls who had disappeared, and the regime needed to flip the narrative or at least divide the public over the cause of their sudden deaths.

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Nine days after her disappearance, Nika’s family confirmed her death, and her body was taken to a cemetery in her hometown and buried next to her father. This was when an unprecedented information operation started: The regime claimed that, the night she disappeared, Nika had jumped off the rooftop of a nearby building.

Because Nika’s mother had already seen and identified her body and had not found any injuries to it other than to her skull, they resisted the regime’s demand to keep quiet or confirm their false narrative. Thus, the regime detained her aunt and uncle who lived in Tehran. 

A couple of days later, state TV’s main evening news bulletin, 20:30, aired a short report where the security forces showed off all their skills of disinformation and malinformation. They forced the aunt and uncle to confirm before cameras, while detained, that Nika had killed herself. They even took the aunt to where Nika’s body was supposedly discovered. They took the “manager” of the building to the rooftop where Nika had allegedly jumped off. He showed two photographs on his phone of Nika’s body lying on the ground and of her bag and mobile phone neatly left on an iron bar on the rooftop. All of this counts as disinformation.

The report did mention rumors about her death amid protests and did confirm she had joined the protests for a few hours, but denied claims about her arrest, injury, or disappearance.

The denial was centered around seconds of CCTV footage. The clip showed a young woman with a similar figure and outfit speaking on the phone while entering a narrow alley and the building where she allegedly had jumped from. The date and time labels seemed compatible with the regime’s narrative. The report played the footage and immediately showed the aunt next to a laptop with the same footage on its screen, confirming to the reporter next to her that the person in the footage was in fact Nika.

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There were minor hints that the video was either outright staged (disinformation) or somewhat manipulated (malinformation). Some Twitter users pointed to the blond tips of Nika’s hair, which differed from the hair style of the person in the footage. The unusually high-resolution quality of the footage was another hint, although the date and camera name labels seemed compatible with the suicide theory. Also suspicious was that “Nika” removed the black mask from her face as soon as she entered the alley and faced the CCTV camera. Some users also suggested that the footage was genuine, but that the date and the time labels were modified.

Nevertheless, the report and footage were convincing enough to cause deep doubts, thereby calm things down on the street for the next couple of days.

It was perhaps the efficacy of this information operation that provoked Nika’s mother, who was not in custody, to deny all the claims in the report in a self-recorded video, posted online. She said Nika had her ID and phone with her when she left to join the protests and that she was killed the same night in the street, and her body was taken to a morgue right away by the police. She said she had seen her body in the morgue nine days later and, apart from her damaged head and face, there were no other injuries. She noted that the morgue authorities were ordered not to contact the family even though they had already identified Nika’s body, using the ID in her bag. She confirmed seeing the autopsy report, which identified “blow to the head by a hard object” as the official cause of death and insisted that Nika’s aunt and uncle’s false confessions were taken under duress.

Despite the back and forth between Nika’s family and the state, the regime’s achievement with this info-op, centered around fabricated CCTV footage, was significant. This footage not only weakened the prospect of a new wave of young street protestors, but also frightened parents whose young kids were showing up every night in the protests. If the latter function was unintentional in the first couple of weeks, later it became a common tactic: to delegate the crackdown to the parents—something that can be called “two-step control.” The term is inspired by a famous communication theory from the 1950s by Elihu Katz and Paul Lazarsfeld which refers to how the media often influences the public indirectly through political or cultural elites—and now increasingly through celebrities, who then convey those media messages to their audiences.

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In one example of this two-step control strategy, the state appeared to either actively help spread or strategically sit on rumors about another 20-year-old girl being violently raped in detention and handed over to a hospital with serious injuries and a shaved head. They did finally deny the rumors a while later, but the desired impact on parents was already achieved. Malinformation, especially when combined by disinformation, takes information warfare to a new level. For instance, inauthentic CCTV footage will play a central role in the future because of their quick impact, and videos can easily be indoctrinated through digital imagery techniques, from manipulating time or location labels to adding or removing certain objects. With higher budgets, they can simply be staged by professional actors and directors in front of real CCTV cameras.

What can save us from the harms of fake CCTV footage, and perhaps many other kinds of malinformation, is simply to stop perceiving them as ultimate proofs of truth. There are facts and truths out there, unlike what hardcore relativists claim. But when nearly all sources of truth can be manipulated, it is less risky to promote skepticism or critical thinking in everything than to ask the public to discover and fully trust a few authorities of truth.

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