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The US Election Threats Are Clear. What to Do About Them Is Anything But

On Wednesday, members of the US Senate Intelligence Committee questioned senior national security officials on how they plan to respond to attacks on voting infrastructure and attempts to influence the election using deepfakes, generative AI, and misinformation. While everyone in the room appeared to agree on what the threats are, senators expressed concern about how exactly government agencies would respond.

In a wide-ranging session, director of national intelligence Avril Haines, Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency director Jen Easterly, and FBI executive assistant director Larissa Knapp focused especially on the wide availability of increasingly sophisticated AI tools that make it easier for more people to create convincing and deceptive fake videos and audio. Senators pressed them on what they would do if one of those AI-generated fakes went viral in the heat of a presidential election.

“I don’t think I have a clearer understanding of who’s in charge and how we would respond,” said Marco Rubio, a senator from Florida and vice chair of the committee. “I don’t want there to be any gray area.”

Haines pointed to a US government “notification framework” that provides guidance for making public disclosures while considering sensitive intelligence-collection methods used by the US government.

Building off of Rubio’s question, committee chair Mark Warner, a senator from Virginia, praised the response by the Trump administration after Iran-linked actors posed as the Proud Boys in an attempt to intimidate voters. In an unprecedented move at the time, senior law enforcement and intelligence officials publicly attributed the impersonation to Iran-linked actors within days.

Senator Angus King of Maine called the framework “a bureaucratic nightmare” and pushed for faster disclosure of influence efforts.

“What I want to urge is disclosure of sources when you’re aware of it immediately,” King said.

Haines responded that the framework may “sound quite bureaucratic” but that the government has been able to expedite its decisionmaking process to happen in as quickly as two days.

Warner noted that it’s now easier than ever for other countries to attempt to interfere in elections. “The barriers to entry for foreign malign influence—including election influence—have become almost vanishingly small,” Warner said. “The scale and sophistication of these sorts of attacks against our elections can be accelerated several-fold by what are now cutting-edge AI tools.

He also criticized efforts to downplay the severity of election interference in 2016. “I think there has been some rewriting post-2016 that somehow some of the activities in Russia, or even in 2020 with Iran, that was kind of harmless trolling,” Warner said.

Haines agreed, pointing to Iran as an example of a foreign actor making serious attempts to sow discord among Americans.

Iran is “increasingly aggressive in their efforts seeking to stoke this kind of discord and promote chaos and undermine confidence in the integrity of the process and they use social media platforms, really, to issue threats, [and] to disseminate disinformation,” she said.

And Iran’s not alone; the officials gave an overview of other countries seeking to influence the upcoming presidential election. Haines said that Russia “remains the most active foreign threat to our elections.”

Read More: The US Election Threats Are Clear. What to Do About Them Is Anything But

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