Spy used AI-generated face to connect with targets, says expert

This image captured on June 11, 2019 shows part of a LinkedIn profile for someone who identified themselves as Katie Jones. The Associated Press has found it is one of many phantom profiles that lurk on the social media platform. (AP Photo)
Updated 13 June 2019

Spy used AI-generated face to connect with targets, says expert

  • US counterintelligence official says foreign spies routinely use fake social media profiles to home in on American targets
  • Accused China in particular of waging “mass scale” spying on LinkedIn

LONDON: Katie Jones sure seemed plugged into the Washington’s political scene. The 30-something redhead boasted a job at a top think tank and a who’s-who network of pundits and experts, from the centrist Brookings Institution to the right-wing Heritage Foundation. She was connected to a deputy assistant secretary of state, a senior aide to a senator and the economist Paul Winfree, who is being considered for a seat on the Federal Reserve.
But Katie Jones doesn’t exist, The Associated Press has determined. Instead, the persona was part of a vast army of phantom profiles lurking on the professional networking site LinkedIn.
Experts who reviewed the Jones profile’s LinkedIn activity say it’s typical of espionage efforts on the professional networking site, whose role as a global Rolodex has made it a powerful magnet for spies.
“It smells a lot like some sort of state-run operation,” said Jonas Parello-Plesner, who serves as program director at the Denmark-based think tank Alliance of Democracies Foundation and was the target several years ago of an espionage operation that began over LinkedIn .
William Evanina, director of the US National Counterintelligence and Security Center, said foreign spies routinely use fake social media profiles to home in on American targets — and accused China in particular of waging “mass scale” spying on LinkedIn.
“Instead of dispatching spies to some parking garage in the USto recruit a target, it’s more efficient to sit behind a computer in Shanghai and send out friend requests to 30,000 targets,” he said in a written statement.
Last month, retired CIA officer Kevin Mallory was sentenced to 20 years in prison for passing details of top secret operations to Beijing, a relationship that began when a Chinese agent posing as a recruiter contacted him on LinkedIn.
Unlike Facebook’s friends-and-family focus, LinkedIn is oriented toward job seekers and headhunters, people who routinely fire out resumes, build vast webs of contacts and pitch projects to strangers. That connect-them-all approach helps fill the millions of job openings advertised on the site, but it also provides a rich hunting ground for spies. And that has Western intelligence agencies worried.
British , French and German officials have all issued warnings over the past few years detailing how thousands of people had been contacted by foreign spies over LinkedIn.
In a statement, LinkedIn said it routinely took action against fake accounts, yanking thousands of them in the first three months of 2019. It also said “we recommend you connect with people you know and trust, not just anyone.”
The Katie Jones profile was modest in scale, with 52 connections. But those connections had enough influence that they imbued the profile with credibility to some who accepted Jones’ invites. The AP spoke to about 40 other people who connected with Jones between early March and early April of this year, many of whom said they routinely accept invitations from people they don’t recognize.
“I’m probably the worst LinkedIn user in the history of LinkedIn,” said Winfree, the former deputy director of President Donald Trump’s domestic policy council, who confirmed connection with Jones on March 28.
Winfree, whose name came up last month in relation to one of the vacancies on the Federal Reserve Board of Governors, said he rarely logs on to LinkedIn and tends to just approve all the piled-up invites when he does.
“I literally accept every friend request that I get,” he said.
Lionel Fatton, who teaches East Asian affairs at Webster University in Geneva, said the fact that he didn’t know Jones did prompt a brief pause when he connected with her back in March.
“I remember hesitating,” he said. “And then I thought, ‘What’s the harm?’“
Parello-Plesner noted that the potential harm can be subtle: Connecting to a profile like Jones’ invites whoever is behind it to strike up a one-on-one conversation, and other users on the site can view the connection as a kind of endorsement.
“You lower your guard and you get others to lower their guard,” he said.
The Jones profile was first flagged by Keir Giles, a Russia specialist with London’s Chatham House think tank. Giles was recently caught up in an entirely separate espionage operation targeting critics of the Russian antivirus firm Kasperky Lab. So when he received an invitation from Katie Jones on LinkedIn he was suspicious.
She claimed to have been working for years as a “Russia and Eurasia fellow” at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, but Giles said that, if that were true, “I ought to have heard of her.”
CSIS spokesman Andrew Schwartz told the AP that “no one named Katie Jones works for us.”
Jones also claimed to have earned degrees in Russian studies from the University of Michigan, but the school said it was “unable to find anyone by this name earning these degrees from the university.”
The Jones account vanished from LinkedIn shortly after the AP contacted the network seeking comment. Messages sent to Jones herself, via LinkedIn and an associated AOL email account, went unreturned.
Several experts contacted by the AP said Jones’ profile picture appeared to have been created by a computer program.
“I’m convinced that it’s a fake face,” said Mario Klingemann, a German artist who has been experimenting for years with artificially generated portraits and says he has reviewed tens of thousands of such images. “It has all the hallmarks.”
Klingemann and other experts said the photo — a closely cropped portrait of a woman with blue-green eyes, copper-colored hair and an enigmatic smile — appeared to have been created using a family of dueling computer programs called generative adversarial networks, or GANs, that can create realistic-looking faces of entirely imaginary people. GANs, sometimes described as a form of artificial intelligence, have been the cause of increasing concern for policymakers already struggling to get a handle on digital disinformation. On Thursday, US lawmakers are due to hold their first hearing devoted primarily to the threat of artificially generated imagery .
Hao Li, who directs the Vision of Graphics Lab at the University of Southern California’s Institute for Creative Technologies, reeled off a list of digital tells that he believes show the Jones photo was created by a computer program, including inconsistencies around Jones’ eyes, the ethereal glow around her hair and smudge marks on her left cheek.
“This is a typical GAN,” he said. “I’ll bet money on it.”
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Online:
Test your ability to tell a real face from a fake one at: http://www.whichfaceisreal.com/
Generate your own deepfake faces at: https://thispersondoesnotexist.com


Arab News launches Japanese-language online edition

Updated 33 min 29 sec ago

Arab News launches Japanese-language online edition

  • News website in both Japanese and English is part of a more digital and more global direction of the Middle East’s leading English language daily

TOKYO: Arab News, the Middle East’s leading English language daily, has launched an eagerly awaited Japanese-language online edition as part of its ongoing global expansion.

As a symbol of the cordial business, trading and cultural relations between the Kingdom and Japan, arabnews.jp commenced coverage to coincide with the enthronement of Emperor Naruhito in the Japanese capital.

The news website, which is available in both Japanese and English, will focus on enabling exchange of information between Japan and the Arab world in business, current affairs as well as arts and culture.

Speaking at a ceremony marking the launch of Arab News Japan on Oct. 21, Taro Kono, Japan’s defense minister, said: “It will be good to have news in Japanese so many Japanese can read about the Arab world.

“I think the Middle East has a lot to offer. Yes, I saw we import a lot of oil and we export a lot of Toyota, but I think our relations need to go beyond that. Japan is racially and religiously very neutral, and we have no negative footprint in history, so we can be a good broker in conflict in the Middle East and that’s what we should be doing.

“So when I was foreign minister, I opened up in Japan new political dialogue, and that was the first time we did it in Cairo, and we are supposed to do it sometime this year for the second time, and I visited almost every single country in the Middle East except Libya, Yemen and Syria, but I guess I visited almost all the rest of the countries, and some several times.

“We share the common values, we have a high respect for the elders and we think that the family is very important values, so we stay in the east of the Asian continent and the “Middle East” in the “West” (of the continent), kind of funny, but we share the common values, and to me we are friends and I think we need to work together.

“In order to do that we need to know what people in the Middle East are actually thinking, what is happening on daily basis and we haven’t got the source for that but now Arab News is now in Japan, and they are going to start news in Japanese. And I bet they would carry news in Japan in Arabic as well, so this is a very good means to exchange the information between the middle east and Japan, so I am very much looking forward to it and this is the beginning of a new era. Our emperor has enthronement ceremony tomorrow, so I mean there can be no better way to start this endeavor. So, welcome Arab News.”

The Japanese-language edition is the first in a foreign language – and the second under the Arab News brand following the highly successful launch of the Pakistan edition.

The content of arabnews.jp is a mix of original reporting from both the Middle East and Japan and translated feed of some of Arab News’s most important news and views.

Arab News is part of the regional publishing group Saudi Research and Marketing Group (SRMG). It has been the English newspaper of record for Saudi Arabia and the region for over 40 years.

Faisal J. Abbas, Arab News editor-in-chief had announced the Japanese-language edition project at the G1 Global conference in Tokyo on Sept. 16, describing it as “part of our more digital, more global direction.”

He had added: “We hope that the new service arabnews.jp helps bring about a better mutual understanding of both our rich cultures and become a trusted communication channel where our friends in Japan can rely on us for credible information and insightful analysis.”

In the Arab world, Saudi Arabia is one of Japan’s most important economic partners. A major part of Japan’s energy imports come from Saudi Arabia.

The Kingdom imports manufactured goods and electronic equipment from Japan, and is a significant destination for Japanese financial investment.

In his speech on the occasion, Majid Al-Qasabi, Saudi Arabia’s Minister for Commerce and Investment said: “We flew from Riyadh to Dubai and from Dubai to Tokyo. I am very honored to be among you here today.

“Japan is a long reliable strategic partner and friend. Since 1955, business has been great between the two countries, we appreciate all the cooperation, the partnerships and the business with the Japanese community. The kingdom of Saudi Arabia has a special relation, especially the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia with the new Emperor.

“We hope that Japan will have a fruitful future and I would like to congratulate Arab News, this is a great opportunity, a moment in history, at least we should be present here with our friends in Japan.”

Also at the launch ceremony was Yuriko Koike, governor of Tokyo and the first woman ever to hold the post. “I want to congratulate Arab News on the launch of their Japanese edition,” she told the audience.

“And this is wonderful news for me in particular as I have worked to strengthen ties between Japan and the Middle East for so many years.

Koike is no stranger to the Middle East or the Arab world. She studied Arabic at the American University in Cairo, graduating in sociology, and spent five years in Cairo in the 1970s, a time she thinks of fondly.

“After college and as a journalist I had the opportunity to interview many Arab leaders, as a member of the Diet and when visiting the Middle East from time to time.

“I tried to create numerous opportunities to create mutual understanding in Japan and Arab countries.

“And since being elected as governor of Tokyo, I am always inviting many Islamic diplomats and ambassadors from Islamic countries to celebrate the Iftar during Ramadan.

“We are nine months away from the start of the 2020 Games in Tokyo, and the Tokyo Metropolitan Government is creating a welcoming environment for international tourists and of course those from the Islamic countries.

“I hope these visitors – especially those from Saudi Arabia – can visit with peace of mind and comfort, in Tokyo where tradition and innovation coexist.

“I hope Arab News will be able to act as a bridge to promote mutual understanding between Japan and Saudi Arabia and all the Middle East.”

In an exclusive interview to Arab News in July this year, Koike had said she believed Saudi Arabia was moving in the right direction, referring to women’s empowerment and the changes happening in the country under Vision 2030.

“The challenge in what is going on in Saudi Arabia is really meaningful to enrich the Saudi culture and Saudi society, to make it richer and more diverse,” she had said.

Incidentally, Saudi officials are working with their Japanese counterparts on the formal handover for the G20 leaders’ summit, which will take place in the Kingdom next year, following the highly successful event held in Osaka, Japan, in June.

At that event, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman told Shinzo Abe, the Japanese prime minister, that Japan was a country dear to the hearts of all Saudis.

“We will work together to prepare for the G20 summit 2020 in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” the Crown Prince said.

For his part, Abe had praised the Kingdom’s progress in accordance with the Vision 2030 strategy.