Politicians from the UK, Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania tricked by fake meetings with opposition figures
A series of senior European MPs have been approached in recent days by individuals who appear to be using deepfake filters to imitate Russian opposition figures during video calls.
Those tricked include Rihards Kols, who chairs the foreign affairs committee of Latvia’s parliament, as well as MPs from Estonia and Lithuania. Tom Tugendhat, the chair of the UK foreign affairs select committee, has also said he was targeted.
“Putin’s Kremlin is so weak and frightened of the strength of @navalny they’re conducting fake meetings to discredit the Navalny team,” Tugendhat posted in a tweet, referring to the Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny. “They got through to me today. They won’t broadcast the bits where I call Putin a murderer and thief, so I’ll put it here.”
Kols uploaded a photograph of Leonid Volkov, an ally of Navalny, and a screenshot of his doppelganger taken from the video call. Volkov said the two looked virtually identical. “Looks like my real face – but how did they manage to put it on the Zoom call? Welcome to the deepfake era …” he wrote.
Deepfakes are named for the “deep learning” that allows artificial intelligence networks to generate, or imitate, faces and to have them mimic human behaviour.
New smartphone apps allow users to map other faces on to their own or to “animate” an image of any face, almost like a puppet. The poor resolution on video calls would explain in part why the prank wasn’t immediately apparent to the targets.
Kols said he had been approached by email by a person claiming to be Volkov and had held a short video-conference call with him, where they discussed support for Russian political prisoners and the Russian annexation of Crimea. Only later did he realise he may have been the victim of a hi-tech prank, he said.
“Quite a painful lesson, but perhaps we can also say thanks to this fake Volkov for this lesson for us and Lithuanian and Estonian colleagues,” he wrote. “It is clear that the so-called truth decay or post-truth and post-fact era has the potential to seriously threaten the safety and stability of local and international countries, governments and societies.”
Volkov accused a Russian duo named Vovan and Lexus, who regularly target western officials, of being behind the call.
Reached by Facebook, Alexei Stolyarov, who goes by the pseudonym Lexus, did not deny speaking with Kols, saying he would “keep it a secret”. He did deny using a filter to appear like Volkov, writing: “Probably Volkov has false information.”
He sent a link to a tongue-in-cheek denial on Telegram, where an acquaintance claimed he was “with Leonid in Donetsk right now”, posting a photo of Stolyarov in what appeared to be facial makeup.
“We both strongly condemn the latest disgusting attempt by the Kremlin to discredit protest leaders and Putin’s number two enemy in Russia,” the post read.