The Danger of Manipulated Videos

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By Peter Clarke, JD on November 13, 2018 6:00 AM

FindLaw columnist Eric Sinrod writes regularly in this section on legal developments surrounding technology and the internet.

Technology has advanced to the point that videos can be doctored in terms of words spoken or physical actions taken to the point that those videos can look quite authentic.

Why is this problematical?

One can easily think of many problematical scenarios resulting from manipulated videos. Let's first take one extreme, hypothetical example. Then we will look at a recent, actual example.

Imagine that a doctored video goes viral that shows a major world leader announcing the he immediately intends to have his country deploy nuclear weapons to strike another country. The world leader actually did not say that, but his moving facial image was altered and words were added sounding in his voice to make the fake attack announcement.

Once this video goes viral, it is picked up by the leader of the country supposedly facing imminent nuclear attack. This second world leader then actually launches his weapons in counter-attack, before they might be taken out by the perceived incoming nuclear weapons.

Hopefully, steps would be taken to verify the authenticity of the originally threatened attack, so that the crisis could be averted once it is learned the video has been doctored and that the first world leader actually did not intend an attack. However, it is possible that when time is of the essence, cooler minds might not prevail. Indeed, what if the hypothetical crisis were compounded by manipulated videos showing both of these world leaders threatening each other's countries with imminent attack? It would be even more difficult to unravel the situation and impose calm on chaos.

The worries about doctored videos have been brought home recently by the controversy regarding the possibility that White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders may have distributed such a video as part of the effort by the Trump administration to support its suspension of White House press credentials of Jim Acosta, a CNN correspondent. In fact, the White House News Photographers Association has made that exact concern known.

During a recent White House press conference, Acosta was asking questions that the President did not like, and the President made negative comments about Acosta at the time. Acosta persisted with questions, and he did not want to yield the microphone to a White House intern. After that, the White House suspended Acosta's credentials on the basis that he had been physical with the intern when he was not willing to give up the microphone.

Press Secretary Sanders subsequently sought to justify the suspension by sharing a video showing Acosta brushing his arm against the arm of the intern when not giving up the microphone. While that video, even if not doctored, frankly does not show much physical contact, a number of journalists are crying foul while claiming that the video was manipulated and should not have been distributed. They believe that Acosta did not have any physical contact at all with the intern, and the video was manipulated to make it look like that was the case.

Some journalists claim that the video distributed by Sanders was first shared by InfoWars, "a site operated by right-wing conspiracy theory Alex Jones," according to the Hill.com.

There are methods to detect whether videos have been doctored, and those methods should be utilized before a suspect video is further shared with the public. And hopefully, those methods can be timely employed in situations like the nuclear attack hypothetical to avert a tremendous disaster. These detections methods will have to become ever more sophisticated over time as video-altering technology further develops.

Eric Sinrod (@EricSinrod on Twitter) is a partner in the San Francisco office of Duane Morris LLP, where he focuses on litigation matters of various types, including information technology and intellectual property disputes. You can read his professional biography here. To receive a weekly email link to Mr. Sinrod's columns, please email him at ejsinrod@duanemorris.com with Subscribe in the Subject line. This column is prepared and published for informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice. The views expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the author's law firm or its individual partners.

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