Seeing the Round Corners

HEADS UP, the new day for Seeing the Round Corners “GOING LIVE” is Tuesday each week.

January 21, 2020


Today, Coercive Responses as a way of dealing with deep fakes and deep fake videos – Military Responses and Covert Actions.

The discussion today is somewhat more narrow than in previous responses. The perpetrator, be it a foreign government or a non-state actor, will limit the utility of civil suits, criminal prosecution and regulatory actions, but nevertheless, the Government possesses “other instruments that it can bring to bear in such contexts in order to impose significant costs on such perpetrators.”

Future armed conflicts will no doubt be the target of deep fakes. Chesney and Citron (the authors of the Deep Fake papers) identified information operations of various kinds as having long been an important aspect of warfare.

Before going on, the term “information operations” may be of interest to the reader:  “Separately, it defines ‘military information support operations’ as ‘planned operations to convey selected information and indicators to foreign ordinances to influence their emotions, motives, objective reasoning and ultimately the behavior of foreign governments, organizations, groups and individuals in a manner favorable to the originator’s objectives’.” (Prior to 2010, these activities were known as psychological operations, or psyops.)

Chesney and Citron point out, “Such effects are sought at every level from the tactical to the strategic, and with an eye towards effects ranging from the immediate to the long term. Deep fakes will be useful in all such settings.”

Here are some possibilities that might occur:

  • insurgents might inflame local opinion against United States or allied forces by depicting those forces burning a Koran or killing a civilian;
  • if employed deftly enough, such fraud might also be used to advance a “lawfare” strategy, leveraging the good intentions of journalists and NGOs to generate distracting or even debilitating legal, political and diplomatic friction;
  • insurgents might deploy deep fakes to make their own leaders or personnel appear more admirable or brave than otherwise might be possible, to create the false impression that they were in a particular location at a particular time;
  • insurgents might use deep fakes to make it seem that a particular leader is still alive and free rather than dead or captured;
  • the United States military, for its part, might use deep fakes to undermine the credibility of an insurgent leader by making it appear that the person is secretly cooperating with the United States or engaging in immoral or otherwise hypocritical behavior.


No doubt, if deep fake technology becomes powerful enough or commonplace enough and deployed deftly enough, “the opportunities for mischief – deadly mischief in some cases – will be plentiful on both sides.” Readers should not forget, the United States is just as likely to use the deep fake technology as the “other side.”

Adversaries of the United States may use deep fakes in these ways:

  • penetration of the adversaries’ computer networks for purposes of both intelligence gathering making it easier to prepare for or respond to a deep fake and disruption operations, degrading or destroying the adversary’s capacity to produce them in the first place;
  • might deploy a Kinetic strike on facilities or individuals involved in the deep fake production process, subject of course, to the law of armed conflict rules governing distinction, proportionality, and so forth; and
  • the enemy might entail the capture and detention of enemy personnel or supporters involved in such work.


When the creators of deep fakes, the individuals or servers relating to an armed conflict are located in a third country, not the country in conflict, “the freedom of action for a military response of any kind may be sharply circumscribed both by policy and by legal considerations,” according to Chesney and Citron.

“Covert action” refers to “government-sponsored activity that is meant to impact events overseas without the United States government’s role being apparent or acknowledged.” This writer must emphasize, that is a capacious definition, encompassing a wide-range of potential activities,” to put it mildly.

Chesney and Citron state, “propaganda and other information operations, for example, can be and frequently are conducted as, covert actions.” Intelligence services of many countries will make use of deep fake technologies in such context in the future,  especially with the 2020 Presidential election fast approaching. The Russian covert action in the 2016 election was significant even without deep fakes, but look for it in 2020.

Chesney and Citron point out specifically that the United States government “has the option of turning to covert action in response to a foreign government’s use of deep fakes –  and not just Russia, the possibilities are wide:  Iran, China and several others.  

There are various possibilities when considering what covert actions could be taken as opposed to military alternatives:

  • could be basis for degrading or destroying the technical capacity of a foreign actor to produce deep fakes;
  • covert action does not require any predicate circumstance of armed conflict; presidents may resort to when they wish because covert action is not publicly acknowledged;
  • diplomatic and political friction that might otherwise make a particular action unattractive is reduced in comparison to other alternatives although not necessarily eliminated for the activity may later become public;
  • covert action may be a particularly attractive option where the activity in question might violate international law;
  • the statutory framework governing covert action requires compliance with the Constitution and statutes of the United States, yet is conspicuously silent about international law (many have speculated that this is construed within the government as domestic-law justification for activities that violate international law.


Covert action has other ways of indirectly disrupting a foreign target’s capacity to produce deep fakes as further outlined by Chesney and Citron:

  • covert means might be used in a wide variety of ways to impose costs on the person, organization or government at issue; and
  • covert action can be used to deter or punish foreign actors that employ deep fakes in ways harmful to the United States (so long as steps are taken to ensure that the targeted person or entity has at least some reason to believe that those costs are a response from the United States – a tricky but not insurmountable proposition where the sponsoring role of the United States is not meant to be acknowledged publicly).


Next week, overt tools that can serve the same purpose quite effectively as covert-action tools meant to impose costs on foreign individuals or entities who may make harmful use of deep fakes.

The reader's comments or questions are always welcome. E-mail me at