Russia ‘deepfakes opposition leaders in video calls to European politicians’

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The Russian government has been accused of using deepfakes to pose as opposition figures during video calls with other European politicians, including a Brit MP.

A number of senior political figures say they were duped by pranksters using filters to disguise their true appearance on camera, instead appearing to resemble allies of Vladimir Putin's enemy Alexei Navalny.

Rihards Kols, who chairs Latvia's foreign affairs committee, says someone appeared onscreen in an official meeting who appeared to be a dead ringer for Leonid Volkov, an ally of the imprisoned Navalny.

He claims he received an email from an "imposter" posing as Volkov requesting a video conference with the committee to discuss Navalny's imprisonment on March 16, and the meeting went ahead a week later.

"The conversation took place in a video conference format where this fake Volkov thanked Latvia for their support and strict position on EU sanctions (and) stressed that international pressure is important to release A. Navalny and other political prisoners," Kols wrote in a social media post.

"The conversation was quite unspeakable and short, and it was probably the only thing that was unusual about this meeting.

"Nothing made me think that we are meeting a fake Volkov, someone trying to 'joke'."

It was only later that Ukrainian politicians reported they'd also had a bizarre video call with "Volkov" that Kols and his colleagues began to suspect they'd been fooled by a deepfake.

"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 said.

"It is clear that the so-called truth decay or post-truth… has the potential to seriously threaten the safety and stability of local and international countries, governments and societies."

Kols included a side-by-side image of the real Volkov and the deepfake and invited readers to try to distinguish between them.

British politicians have also been taken in by the scam, with Tom Tugendhat, chair of the UK foreign affairs select committee, admitting he too was targeted — and he pointed the blame right at the Russian government.

"Putin's Kremlin is so weak and frightened of the strength of @navalny they're conducting fake meetings to discredit the Navalny team," he tweeted.

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"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."

After learning his likeness had been used in deepfake technology, the real Volkov accused notorious Russian pranksters Vovan and Lexus of being behind the scam.

The pair have hoodwinked a diverse range of targets, from Elton John to Turkish President Recep Erdoğan, with eerily convincing prank phone calls in which they pretend to be other people — including Putin himself.

While they claim to be free agents, some critics believe the duo are in the pay of the Kremlin or the FSB.

Alexei Stolyarov ("Lexus") was contacted by the Guardian via Facebook and denied using a deepfake filter to pose as Volkov although he did not deny attending a video meeting with Kols.

"We both strongly condemn the latest disgusting attempt by the Kremlin to discredit protest leaders and Putin's number two enemy in Russia," he said in a tongue-in-cheek social media post.

  • Russia
  • Technology

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