The Senate is pursuing legislation to ban AI deepfakes in election materials

Politicians, like all of us, often use exaggerations to make a point.

But don't doubt the alliterative precision of Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) when he warns of “a deluge of deception, disinformation and deepfakes … about to descend on the American public.”

“There is a clear and present danger to our democracy,” he added for emphasis during the Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearing about deepfakes in the elections he presided over last week.

One thing we don't need after the January 6, 2021 insurrection: the Capitol insurrection is another danger to democracy. But unlike the televised violence that day, Blumenthal's hearing showed how artificial intelligence can be used to subvert elections far more covertly than MAGA rioters supporting President Donald Trump tried to do three years ago.

It is a bipartisan threat that has led to bipartisan resolve.

Two Democrats, Sens. Amy Klobuchar (Minn.) and Chris Coons (Del.), and two Republicans, Sens. Josh Hawley (Mo.) and Susan Collins (Maine), urge legislation that would ban misleading AI materials in political ads. The bill, introduced in September, would also allow federal office seekers to ask U.S. courts to order the removal of false information and award damages to the candidates.

But the legislation won't happen quickly and the urgency is clear, as the hearing emphasized.

“Will we have to experience an electoral disaster before Congress realizes, 'Gosh, we really have to do something to give the public a sense of security, a sense of certainty that what they're seeing and hearing is actually real, or is it? ? in fact manufactured,” asked Hawley, the top Republican on the Privacy, Technology and Judiciary subcommittee, which met last week.

Deepfakes featuring Trump and President Biden have already been used to fool the public.

Hearing witness David Scanlan, secretary of state in New Hampshire, recalled “getting ready to do a really good” presidential primary there the weekend before the January election. Then things changed. He heard about “a robocall using AI with President Biden's voice on it, asking individuals not to vote in the election.” The call appeared to come from a phone number associated with a former Democratic Party official.

“It is important that you save your vote for the November elections,” the voice said. “Your vote makes a difference in November, not this Tuesday.”

The message was fake, as was the association with the party official.

“This is what suppressing turnout looks like,” Blumenthal said after playing the audio during the hearing. The Associated press said it “may be the first known attempt to use artificial intelligence to disrupt U.S. elections.”

Last month, BBC reported in fake photos of Trump surrounded by African Americans, which were apparently distributed to create a false impression about his level of black support. Last year, deepfake images related to Trump's court appearances showed him wrestling with police and wearing prison garb.

What's also disturbing is how little effort it takes to fool people with today's technology, which makes really good counterfeits easy. With free online programs, Blumenthal says, “voice clones, deepfake images and videos are disturbingly easy for anyone to create.”

The one with Biden was done “by a street magician whose previous claim to fame was that he holds world records in spoon bending and escaping from straitjackets,” Blumenthal added. 'And if a street magician can cause so much trouble, imagine what Vladimir Putin or China can do. In fact, they do it.”

Five years ago, The Washington Post reported on a slick Russian campaign that used social media to discourage black voters, according to documents released by the Senate Intelligence Committee. One poster showed a black man's face next to the words “I will not vote.” That was primitive compared to today's efforts.

While deepfakes involving Biden or Trump will receive publicity if discovered, Blumenthal said “local elections pose an even greater risk” because of the troubling decline of local journalism, an issue the senator explored in an interview. January hearing.

“If a local newspaper is closed or understaffed, there may be no one to check the facts, no one to publish the Pinocchio images and no one to correct the data,” he said last week. “That is a recipe for toxic and destructive politics.”

Furthermore, a March Government Accountability Office Report warned that “trust in real media could be undermined by false claims that real media is deepfake.” In other words, AI makes it easier for fake news to trump real news.

The problem is growing rapidly. “Between 2019 and 2020, deepfake online content increased by 900%,” said the World Economic Forum.

But there are remedies for the toxins AI can generate.

During the hearing, Zohaib Ahmed, CEO and co-founder of Resemble AI in Santa Clara, California, urged “the creation of a public database that will record all generated election content, allowing voters to easily access information about the origins of the content they encounter.” He and others also suggested using digital watermarking technology to verify the authenticity of the content.

Whatever remedies are used, the time is now. Some actions are already underway. In February, at the request of Klobuchar and Collins, the bipartisan U.S. Election Assistance Commission voted unanimously to authorize federal funds to counter disinformation “amplified by AI technologies.”

But “by the time deepfake spreads widely, any report calling it fake will also be too late,” says Ben Colman, CEO and co-founder of Reality Defender, a tool that can detect deepfakes. “This is not fear mongering, nor is it AI alarmism, doomerism or conspiratorial exaggeration. It is simply the logical progression of the weaponization of deepfakes.”

He welcomed the legislation, the Protect elections from misleading AI lawbut urged more action “by imposing real penalties on bad actors” who “change reality and on the platforms that fail to stop its spread.”

This is personal for Klobuchar, who spoke about a dishonest Russian photo indicating that she is funding Nazis in Ukraine. “This photo had a red circle around me in the background,” she said, “and then they put the police signs in the hands of the people at the rally who were never there.”

Klobuchar called for quick action on her bill and a strong approval vote in committee so that “we can get this thing heard immediately…

“We really can't wait.”

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