INDIANAPOLIS — Cyberattacks, “deepfakes” and “sextortion” are a just few of the major issues facing Hoosiers, the FBI’s top agent in Indiana says.
FBI Indianapolis Special Agent in Charge Herb Stapleton discussed the agency’s efforts in stopping cyberattacks and concerns about the use of deepfakes during a meeting with media Thursday at the agency’s Indianapolis field office. The meeting comes more than year-and-a-half after Stapleton first took the reins of the field office.
While some questions were focused on recent investigations into drugs and violent crime in Indianapolis, Stapleton also discussed the FBI’s anti-terrorism efforts and the high number of extortion cases involving nude photos from minors the agency is seeing.
Cyberattacks are dominating headlines as major breaches and incidents continue to come to light. In the last few months, data breaches of third-party vendors used by the state for Medicaid recipients have exposed their private health information.
Though the FBI can’t comment on ongoing investigations, Stapleton says the agency is working hard to counter cyberattacks. Stapleton previously served as deputy assistant director of the cyber division at FBI Headquarters in Washington, D.C., before coming to the Indianapolis field office.
While the effects of the cyberattacks often get a lot of headlines, the agency’s efforts to dismantle the groups responsible aren’t publicized as much, he said.
A few weeks ago, the FBI was able to disable a malware and botnet that had enabled thousands of cyberattacks over the years. “Qakbot” was one of the longest-standing pieces of infrastructure for “bad actors” to use, Stapleton said.
“They won’t be able to use that anymore, so that disrupts a lot of cyber attacks,” he said. “I think that the FBI strategy of targeting what we call the cybercriminal ecosystem is an effective one.”
Stapleton acknowledged that the FBI would never be able to stop cyberattacks entirely, but what they can do is make it tougher for cyber criminals to do the work they are doing. Another challenge is dealing with cyber criminals who are based outside the United States, he said.
“Of course, we’re going to go after the people and try to indict them and arrest them,” he said. “But we recognize that many of these people are located in countries that are not going to cooperate with those efforts. So we have to go after the technological basis for that, we have to go after the money basis for that.”
When asked by reporters about how the rise of artificial intelligence could evolve cyber attacks, Stapleton discussed a recent information sheet compiled by the FBI, National Security Agency and the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency. The sheet was about the use of AI to develop “deepfakes” — a type of AI used to create convincing images, audio and video hoaxes — and how they could be used for cyberattacks.
“I know that that’s something that the FBI is looking at very closely,” Stapleton said.
General concerns range from using a deepfake of a senior executive in a company to perpetuate fraud to political misinformation. The FBI needs to develop techniques, both high- and low-tech, for combating deepfakes, he said.
“There are some [technological] answers to that, but the answer to that is also training people to be appropriately skeptical of what they see and … having the general population understand that just because you see it in the video doesn’t necessarily mean it reflects reality, because that technology does exist to make really, really good fakes,” Stapleton said.
As for political misinformation, the FBI has already seen deepfakes made of prominent politicians and candidates. This is something they are concerned about from a nefarious foreign influence perspective, Stapleton said.
There needs a shared effort from multiple parts of society to address the concerns, including the companies that own the creation platforms, he said.
“There’s a partnership element that has to happen. The FBI cannot police the entire internet — nobody can,” he said.
The FBI is also seeing high numbers of “sextortion” cases, especially among adolescent males. Sextortion is a form of extortion involving sex or sexual content.
Typically in the cases the FBI sees, a perpetrator will pose as a female — usually around the same age as the young victim — and promise to send their own nude photos or a relationship in exchange for the victim taking and sending them nude images.
After receiving the content, the perpetrator — who is often in another country — will then demand payment, threatening to share the victim’s nude photos with everyone on the internet if they don’t pay, Stapleton said.
“[It’s] really a terrible thing to do to a minor, but unfortunately we continue to see that. We really need to be on the lookout for it,” Stapleton said.
In some cases, the perpetrator also threatens to send the images to the victim’s family, friends or school.
Last year, a high school athlete in Michigan committed suicide after two Nigerian men allegedly tricked him into sending explicit photos of himself and threatened to share them with friends and family. The two men are facing federal charges and were extradited to the U.S. from Nigeria last month, NBC News reported.
One of the best ways to combat sextortion is for young people to know that the person on the other end of the conversation may not be who they say they are. It’s easier for people to let their guard down in this type of setting now as people today have many more friends that they only know online versus real life, he said.
“It’s pretty natural to have those kinds of relationships with friends or maybe even romantic partners online, and so that facilitates people letting down their guard a little bit more. It makes this type of scam a lot easier to perpetrate,” Stapleton said.
Youth should also use caution while on the internet. Parents should be aware that this activity is out there and should make sure their children are accessing things that are appropriate to their age level, he said.
Additionally, people should realize that if this happens to someone, it’s not that person’s fault.
“The victim is just that — a victim of a crime,” Stapleton said. “We need to be sensitive to the privacy and the rights of those victims.”
One of the FBI’s primary missions is to “neutralize domestic extremists” and to dismantle terrorist networks worldwide.
Public fears of terrorism are not in the place they once were after the 9/11 attacks — something Stapleton credits to the work of the FBI, their partners in the intelligence community and their local partners in prosecuting suspected suspects and dismantling terrorist networks.
Though terrorism fears are down in the U.S., they still exist, and the FBI has to be constantly vigilant to prevent attacks in the U.S., he said.
Stapleton also said the threat of terrorism has evolved. There are now a lot of efforts by groups who want to harm the U.S., like Al Qaida and ISIS, to radicalize Americans online to join their cause and commit smaller attacks at home.
“The FBI has evolved with that threat,” he said. “We’re very focused on that sort of homegrown, violent extremist piece.”
The number of homegrown extremists who have never traveled overseas — and who harbor extremist ideologies and intend to act on them — has increased over the last few years, Stapleton said.
“The data that you see just in FBI cases that have been prosecuted would bear that outright,” he said. “We’ve prosecuted more people for that than we would have even 10, 15 years ago because there’s more of that activity.”
With the prevalence of social media today, it’s easier than ever for people to consume radical ideology than in the past, Stapleton said.
Domestic terrorism threats also pose a different set of challenges compared to international terrorism for the FBI, Stapleton said.
The FBI doesn’t investigate people for just having a belief or thinking hateful and awful things. It’s only when those people intend to commit a violent act as a result of their thinking that the agency has a crime they can investigate, he said.
“That poses a totally different set of challenges when we’re dealing with U.S. citizens, rightfully so,” Stapleton said. “That’s why we have a Constitution, to have those kinds of protections of speech and assembly and all those things that the First Amendment protects.”