Unmasking the Fakers: Deep Fakes and who watches out for the watchers?

You can find anything on the web. You name it, it’s there. You can even watch former President Obama call President Trump a “total and complete,” well, just watch for yourself. This viral video bounced around news outlets in April 2018 and for good reason—it’s a total and complete fake.

Such videos are becoming more frequent with the proliferation of phones and easy video editing is just a finger tap away. The concern over fake videos grows every day as video consumption continues to usurp the attention of Americans. YouTube alone now reaches more 18-49 year olds than cable. More than 400 hours of video are uploaded each minute and more than 1 billion hours of video is consumed each day. (Statistics as of December 2018) My household most definitely contributes to that number.

Advancements in technology continue to challenge norms, rewrite reality and confuse the crap out of us all. University of Washington researchers unleashed tools of the Deep Fake in 2017. Technology improved quickly by the time Charlie Warzel wrote about the phenomenon in this Buzzfeed piece and committed an episode of Netflix’s Follow This to the making of Deep Fakes (Part 1, Episode 7 “The Future of Fakes”).

These Deep Fakes—falsified, edited and manipulated videos are a tough nut to crack for law enforcement, journalists and any internet viewer wanting a world based on reality. Training for law enforcement and journalists lag behind creative technologies, ambitious pranksters and devious villains.

One university has built a reputation on filtering out noise and finding the signal in manipulated audio and video. CU Denver’s National Center for Media Forensics (NCMF) was founded in 2008 with a grant from the Department of Justice (DOJ) and has the only graduate program in the nation focused on Media Forensics. Media forensics is a growing field studying digital manipulation of audio and video.

NCMF received press in 2012 when they examined audio of a Denver Police interrogation of a murder suspect. While detectives stepped out of the room, the suspect could be heard mumbling to himself. Background noise prevented police from ascertaining his rambling. After detailed analysis using advanced software and techniques, the suspect had muttered a confession—“I did it.”

Such transformations from the unintelligible into the understandable are the cornerstone of NCMF’s prominence in the field. They also train law enforcement, research scientific methodology, conduct analysis and provide consulting to the DOJ, DARPA and Department of Defense. They’ve analyzed YouTube videos of claimed ISIS beheadings and cockpit recordings of downed Malaysian airplanes. Director of NCMF, Catalin Grigoras, and Cole Whitecotton discussed their Center on a February 2019 episode of the CU On the Air podcast.

Separating fact from fiction is a much desired skill in the Internet age. Thank goodness there are watchers watching out for all of us watchers.

Oh, and thanks again to Jordan Peele for doing something once again to wreak havoc in the zeitgeist.

Related podcast:

CU On The Air, “Seeing isn’t believing: CU Denver center masters the science of truth in audio/video,” 2/13/2019

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