Russia continues to be the ‘primary threat’ to the EU in cyberspace, presenting intensifying dangers in terms of online espionage, cyberattacks, and also a likely turn to deepfake technology in the near future, a new report from the Estonian intelligence services says.
Published on Wednesday (17 February), the annual security assessment from Estonia’s Foreign Intelligence Service noted that Russia continues to apply certain ‘KGB-style’ tactics in cyberspace to sow discord among Western societies.
The report comes after the disclosure in December that Russian state agents had most likely been behind the infamous ‘Solar Winds’ hack, in which internal emails at the US government and other Western institutions, including the European Parliament, had been accessed by malicious actors.
Estonia’s research states that in all likelihood, Russian special services will now seek to step up their development of so-called ‘deepfake’ technologies in the field of cyber warfare.
Deepfake technology involves the creation of synthetic media, generally, video material, using artificial intelligence and machine learning tools which allow for an individual’s facial expressions and speech to be doctored to appear real.
“In the future, the Russian services are likely to exploit deepfake technology,” the Estonian intelligent document states.
“This threat will be particularly high once technological development reaches a level where deepfakes are convincing enough to be unrecognisable to the human eye,” it adds, also noting that this will present challenges in the future in terms of the ability of the public to distinguish between true and false information.
The threat of deepfake technologies has long been on the radar of law enforcement agencies in the EU.
In November, a report from the EU’s police agency Europol recommended that nations on the bloc should develop screening technology to better detect deepfake examples.
A series of high-level politicians have already felt the impact of these technologies, with falsified videos being produced of German Chancellor Merkel, former US President Obama, and ex-Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi.
The purpose of politically-motivated deepfakes is often to stoke social unrest and political polarisation between online users, by way of delivering falsified messages from well-known leaders.
More generally, the Estonian report this week hones in on Russia’s general threat in the Baltic Sea region, citing the country’s Zapad 2021 exercise.
Zapad first emerged in 2009 as a series of military ‘rehearsals’ conducted on NATO’s eastern borders in Russia’s Western Military District and designed to simulate Moscow’s response to a potential NATO offensive on Belarus. Similar drills were conducted regularly during the Cold War, and more recently, in 2009, 2013 and 2017.
This year’s Zapad drills, the Estonians say, “cannot be ignored” by NATO, as “Russia will deploy tens of thousands of troops along the borders of the Baltic States.”
Meanwhile, 2021’s rehearsals will be unprecedented for a number of reasons, including potentially increased involvement from the Belarusian Armed Forces and the Regional Grouping of Forces of Belarus.
Moreover, there are concerns as to the extent that Chinese authorities may decide to take part in this year’s Zapad exercises, which would be a first.
“If China also confirms its participation in Zapad 2021, it will be intriguing to see how the Chinese armed forces define their role in a military operation against NATO in Europe,” the report states.
NATO’s leaders in 2019 agreed to focus more on the challenge of China’s “growing international influence” and military might, and are considering to include the threat of Beijing’s rise in the update to NATO’s official master strategy document, its “Strategic Concept”.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic/Alexandra Brzozowski]