Foreign actors could use artificial intelligence to undermine democracy, Canadian officials warn in internal reports

Artificial Intelligence
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OTTAWA — Canadian officials are concerned that foreign countries such as Russia or Saudi Arabia could try to sow discord by amping up separatist sentiments in Quebec, according to documents obtained by the National Post.

That state actors could have an interest in manipulating Quebecers — particularly in the context of an upcoming federal election — is one of a litany of concerns raised by Global Affairs Canada analysts in a series of 2018 reports detailing online disinformation strategies.

There are the now-ubiquitous concerns about Russian troll farms. But there are fears, too, about the “reality-distorting effects” of rapidly improving artificial intelligence. One report produced within Canada’s foreign ministry contains a warning that our “common view of reality” may need to be bolstered to counter the threat.

The National Post used access-to-information law to obtain the documents, prepared by the Digital Inclusion Lab within GAC. Little information is available online about the lab’s activities. A search of a government directory shows analysts associated with the lab operate within a “Centre for International Digital Policy,” inside an “Office of Human Rights, Freedoms and Inclusion” under the assistant deputy minister for international security.

The department did not respond favourably to the Post’s request to interview the lab’s director nor other officials familiar with its work. After several days it provided a written response saying the lab was established in 2016 “to explore issues at the intersection of digital technology and foreign policy.” But it did not answer questions about to whom reports are submitted; whether they are seen by Canada’s foreign minister; how much funding the lab receives; and whether it works in tandem with any of Canada’s intelligence agencies.

One report produced within Canada’s foreign ministry contains a warning that our common view of reality may need to be bolstered to counter the threat

Nonetheless, the reports appear to offer a glimpse into the thinking behind the Liberal government’s recent focus on countering online disinformation and its stated efforts to prevent foreign interference in the next federal election this October.

Several of the reports analyze social media activity around particular events, for example, messaging emanating out of Russia following the attempted murder-by-nerve-agent of a former Russian spy in the United Kingdom. Two of these raise the possibility that foreign actors might want to stoke separatism in Canada.

One, prepared in August, took note of a “small and botched” effort by Saudi Arabia-based accounts to support Quebec’s independence. Small and botched as it was, Quebec media outlets picked up the story. “The Lab would like to highlight that this type of narrative presents a potential vulnerability to Canadian social cohesion. If a malicious actor attempted to rally a pro-independence movement in Quebec, it could have ramifications not only for the provincial elections … but also for Canada’s federal elections.”

A second from last August analyzed a “disinformation campaign” by Russia and Venezuela amid the Catalonian referendum in Spain, which saw the two countries collaborating with “the intent of reinforcing the separatist movement” in the Spanish region, over which Spain’s central government ultimately restored control. The examples within the report “should serve as a cautionary tale in the Canadian context, which has its own separatist movement that could be instrumentalized by malicious foreign actors to polarize the Canadian society and disrupt social cohesion,” its authors wrote.

The report cited research from George Washington University that found of five million messages about Catalonia during the height of what was deemed a “crisis” around the referendum, only three per cent came from outside Russian and Venezuelan cyber-networks. The goal, the report argues, was not to create separatism but to “effectively drive the international coverage of (the) Catalonian situation and effectively depict it as a ‘crisis,’ ” which then “affected the local political reality.”

“Digital Inclusion Lab will continue to improve its understanding of key actors and accounts with ties to Russia and how they approach spreading disinformation. Such information could prove to be crucial in the lead up to the 2019 federal elections,” the report concludes, under the heading: “Cautionary Tale for Canada.”

The lab’s more broadly focused work does not paint a rosy picture, either. A report dated February 2018 that deals exclusively with digital interference in elections, warns: “No quick fix — including content regulation — will be enough to properly meet this challenge.” It divides tactics currently used by foreign actors into four categories: theft and publication of private data; fake news and propaganda; micro-targeted advertising; and trolling.

More alarmingly, it lists as “emerging trends and tools” two practices that became the subject of their own report in September 2018. The first, DeepFakes, come from an artificial intelligence-based technique to create fake videos featuring celebrities. For now, this is predominantly used for porn.

“As technology evolves, it will become increasingly difficult to differentiate between a ‘real’ and a ‘fake’ video. Moreover, it is of increasing concern that these same tools could, and likely will be, used to create political propaganda, generate civil unrest, and support terrorist media efforts,” the September report reads. “This could take on the form of an audio-visual impersonation of a politician or any influential figure disseminating information that can threaten our liberal democracies, democratic institutions and processes.”

The second, MADCOMs, would, through artificial intelligence, tailor “persuasive, distracting, or intimidating messaging toward individuals based on their unique personalities and backgrounds.” In other words, “highly personalized propaganda.”

The international community’s response to that threat, whether by “norm-setting” or regulation, the report says, may need to rest on the goal of “reasserting the existence of facts, expertise, and (the) common view of reality upon which democracy rests.”

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(Excerpt) Read more Here | 2019-07-15 00:49:00

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