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Government officials warn of complex threats to US elections

Generative AI and big data analytics have enabled the proliferation of influence actors, lawmakers told

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Mark Warner, D-Va., said Wednesday’s hearing builds on the panel’s efforts to educate the public on the aims of foreign adversaries and to make sure the U.S. government is positioned to defend its elections from foreign threats.
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Mark Warner, D-Va., said Wednesday’s hearing builds on the panel’s efforts to educate the public on the aims of foreign adversaries and to make sure the U.S. government is positioned to defend its elections from foreign threats. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Biden administration officials expressed confidence Wednesday about the government’s ability to safeguard U.S. elections but noted the threat landscape remains complex with the presence of foreign adversaries and generative artificial intelligence.

The officials appeared before the Senate Intelligence Committee for a wide-ranging hearing where they outlined foreign threats to U.S. elections and described their efforts to address the issue.

The hearing comes less than six months before the hotly contested 2024 presidential election, with President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump being the presumed nominees for their respective political parties.

Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines told the committee that the U.S. government’s efforts to protect elections have improved significantly since the 2016 presidential election.

“Even as the threat landscape is becoming increasingly complicated, it is my view that the U.S. government has never been better prepared to address the challenge,” Haines said. “Protecting our democratic processes from foreign influence or interference is an absolute priority for the intelligence community.”

One trend in recent years has been an increasing number of foreign actors “looking to engage in election influence activities,” Haines said.

Generative AI and big data analytics are also “enabling the proliferation of influence actors who can conduct targeted campaigns” and generative AI has been used in foreign elections, Haines said.

“For example, innovations in AI have enabled foreign influence actors to produce seemingly authentic and tailored messaging more efficiently at greater scale and with content adapted for different languages and cultures,” she said.

Jen Easterly, the director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, told lawmakers that “election infrastructure has never been more secure,” and that the “election stakeholder community has never been stronger.”

Election officials ran secure elections in 2018, 2020 and in 2022, Easterly said, and there is no evidence that “malicious actors” changed or deleted votes or had any material impact on the outcome of those contests.

Yet foreign adversaries continue to remain a threat and aim to undercut American confidence in democratic institutions and election integrity and to implant partisan discord, Easterly said.

“These are efforts which will be exacerbated by generative AI capabilities,” Easterly said.

Committee Chairman Mark Warner, D-Va., said foreign influence efforts go well beyond traditional propaganda or online trolling. The hearing builds on the panel’s efforts to educate the public on the aims of foreign adversaries and to make sure the U.S. government is positioned to defend its elections from foreign threats, he said.

“We’ve got to do a better job of making sure Americans of all political stripes understand what is very probably coming their way,” he said.

DOJ efforts

Elsewhere in D.C. earlier this week, top Justice Department leaders pledged to aggressively investigate threats to election workers and promised to fight against those using advanced technology like artificial intelligence to misinform or threaten voters.

Attorney General Merrick B. Garland said entities across the Justice Department are coordinating to investigate and fight the illegal threats against the workers who administer elections.

“If you threaten to harm or kill an election worker, volunteer or official, the Justice Department will find you and we will hold you accountable,” Garland said before a meeting of the department’s Election Threats Task Force. “The public servants who administer our elections must be able to do their jobs without fearing for their safety or that of their families.”

“We will aggressively investigate and prosecute those who threaten election workers,” Garland said.

Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco said the department will seek enhanced sentences in cases where perpetrators use advanced technology like artificial intelligence to make their crimes more dangerous.

FBI Director Christopher Wray said election workers have faced threats in the run-up to and after elections.

“We’re committed to ensuring threats to election workers receive the swift and thorough response they deserve, whether that’s through federal investigation and prosecution or a referral to our state and local partners,” Wray said.

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