The real Munira, a counter-intelligence expert by profession, is more than her comic persona
by AZREEN HANI/ pic by TMR File
THREE years ago, Munira Mustaffa made headlines as it was revealed that the DC Comics character Munira “Muni” Khairuddin — a government agent under the code name Obscura — was inspired by her.
Obscura first appeared in Batgirl’s edition #32-34 with the creator and writer Gail Simone describing the character as “a Malaysian Muslim woman in Batgirl (the Barbara Gordon one), working as a top espionage fighter in the Spy Smasher division”.
The real Munira, a counter-intelligence expert by profession, is more than her comic persona. It’s like Jason Bourne and Mission Impossible combined.
She had written extensively on various terrorism issues, especially in the South-East Asian region. She was a consultant for private security and investigations firms in London before returning to Malaysia and served as a counterterrorism analyst for the government at the South-East Asia Regional Centre for Counter-Terrorism under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Currently, she is working on her doctorate degree (PhD) in Justice, Law and Criminology at the American University School of Public Affairs in Washington.
“My research focus is on studying counterterrorism through the application of criminology and crime science. I find the principles behind situational crime prevention and crime prevention through environment design fascinating,” she told The Malaysian Reserve recently.
Her recent discovery on deepfake accounts propelled her back in the limelight where she said: “(I) had somehow inadvertently stumbled upon Russian espionage trying to worm their way into LinkedIn, to map out the network of security and defence professionals on the platform.”
Her work, together with a special investigative report by the Associated Press (AP), had identified a deepfake account called “Katie Jones” which subsequently exposed the world on the threat of artificial intelligence (AI)-generated accounts.
Munira said deepfake is produced by deep learning algorithms known as GAN, which stands for generative adversarial network.
It consists of two artificial neural networks working against each other — the generator generating new images, while the discriminator judges whether the images created by the generator are plausible. In other words, it is AI trying to compute if the images are real.
Munira said her background and interest in photography helped in the discovery of “Katie Jones”.
“There was something unusual about the profile that did not sit well with me. I thought it was a stolen image at first, but the reverse search showed no results. Because of that, I had a feeling that she was not real, and even voiced my suspicions to a couple of friends.
“One thing, the photo appeared to be close to a professionally taken picture. So how do you have a profile photo like that and not have a digital footprint at all, especially if it was stolen? It is almost impossible,” she said.
“Initially, I thought she had her earlobe photoshopped, but that made no sense to me because why would anyone photoshop her earlobe?” she said.
As a photo enthusiast, it bugs her about the use of Photoshop to enhance images.
“Once I started to notice these anomalies, suddenly, everything started to click into place right before my eyes,” she added.
She also found it unusual for someone who claimed to be a Russia and Eurasia Fellow for an organisation like the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, but does not have any publication history.
“I immediately recalled that I had read something about this on a Twitter thread not long ago, so I went back on Twitter to dig up the thread. Pretty soon, I was reading up about GAN.
“I went on www.thispersondoesnotexist.com and started to generate my own deepfake — one photo after another. After scrutinising about half-a-dozen deepfakes, I started to pick out the patterns and anomalies in every single one of them, and I went back to ‘Katie Jones’ to study it further.
“Sure enough, they were all there,” Munira said.
It was not that time consuming as it took her less than 24 hours to unravel “Katie Jones” mystery. She then informed Keir Giles, the senior consulting fellow of the Russia and Eurasia programme at the Chatham House, who subsequently informed the AP on the matter.
AP journalist Raphael Satter then set things into motion and his investigation confirmed that Katie Jones is an AI-generated persona.
What is more dangerous is that Katie Jones’ account activity is a kind of covert intelligence work to gather critical information on LinkedIn. US National Counterintelligence and Security Centre director William Evanina was reported as saying that foreign spies often use fake accounts on the networking site to get close to American targets. China, he said, has engaged in “mass scale” spying on LinkedIn.
Munira’s discovery also led LinkedIn’s head of trust and safety, Paul Rockwell, to issue a statement saying that the website does not tolerate fake accounts.
While the threat of deepfake in Malaysia is relatively new or almost non-existent for now, Munira said if it’s left uncurbed, it could lead to propaganda, disinformation, misinformation and targeted hoaxes.
“In terms of preparedness, people need to know and be aware of what a deepfake is, and why they are also vulnerable.
“Key government officials should have been briefed immediately about this threat by now. Users should also be very careful with approaches and who they would admit into their professional network on social media,” she said.
She warned that “tidak apa” (does not matter) attitude would have a dangerous consequence, especially with the rising cyber threats.
But for now, the 30-something polyglot said she is focusing on completing her PhD and then, most likely, establish her own geopolitical intelligence consultancy company and risk assessments.
She admitted that being a female in a male-dominated field is a challenge as she had to repeatedly try to prove her abilities.
“There’s also the challenge of dealing with patriarchy and implicit bias. I have experienced situations where my professionalism and capabilities were diminished, and my accomplishments erased because of sexism,” said Munira.
At one conference after her presentation on terrorist groups in South-East Asia, one of the attendees asked: “Miss Munira, why are you still unmarried?”
That is one of many occasions where she had learnt how to confront and face the many flaws of the society.
“Luck is capricious, and you never know what opportunities might be lurking around the corner. So, persevere and don’t sit around waiting for things to happen,” Munira said.
In fact, had she listened to other people, Munira may not be in this field, especially when she started out by doing medicine.
“I had initially started out doing medicine, but halfway through, I decided that it was not for me. I was more interested in security and investigations. Instead, I chose to do forensic sciences, and I have never looked back,” she said.
At the time, everyone around her thought that she was making a huge career mistake because being a doctor is perceived as a more stable job.
“I have no regrets at all. I guess I have always been inquisitive since I was young. I love having a sense of purpose and I love that jolt of adrenaline rush when I do something exciting,” she said.
Her advice for young aspirants who want to venture into this field is to not be afraid to be bold or different.
“If you can’t fit in any particular box, that’s okay too. Be passionate about what you do and what you enjoy doing. You are encouraged to combine your skills into something that you can apply into the real world, so capitalise on that,” she said.
“Don’t be discouraged from targeting the role that you aspire for. Be unstoppable.”