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U.S. elections face more threats from foreign actors and artificial intelligence

Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines testifying before a Senate hearing earlier this month. During a May 15 hearing, she identified Russia as the greatest foreign threat to this year's U.S. elections.
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Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines testifying before a Senate hearing earlier this month. During a May 15 hearing, she identified Russia as the greatest foreign threat to this year's U.S. elections.

U.S. elections face more threats than ever from foreign actors, enabled by rapid developments in artificial intelligence, the country's top intelligence official told lawmakers on Wednesday.

Federal, state and local officials charged with protecting voting integrity face a "diverse and complex" threat landscape, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines told the Senate Intelligence Committee at a hearing about risks to the 2024 elections. But she also said the federal government "has never been better prepared" to protect elections, thanks to lessons learned since Russia tried to influence voters in 2016.

This year, "Russia remains the most active foreign threat to our elections," Haines said. Using a "vast multimedia influence apparatus" encompassing state media, intelligence services and online trolls, Russia's goals "include eroding trust in U.S. democratic institutions, exacerbating sociopolitical divisions in the United States, and degrading Western support to Ukraine."

But it's a crowded field, with China, Iran and other foreign actors also trying to sway American voters, Haines added.

In addition, she said the rise of new AI technologies that can create realistic "deepfakes" targeting candidates and of commercial firms through which foreign actors can launder their activities are enabling more sophisticated influence operations at larger scale that are harder to attribute.

Wednesday's hearing was the first in a series focused on the election, said committee chair Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., as lawmakers seek to avoid a repeat of 2016, when Russia's meddling caught lawmakers, officials and social media executives off-guard.

Since then, "the barriers to entry for foreign malign influence have unfortunately become incredibly small," Warner said. Foreign adversaries have more incentives to intervene in U.S. politics in an effort to shape their own national interests, he added, and at the same time, Americans' trust in institutions has eroded across the political spectrum.

Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, the committee's top Republican, questioned how those tasked with protecting the election would themselves be received in a climate of distrust. He raised the specter of a fake video targeting himself or another candidate in the days before November's election.

"Who is in charge of letting people know, this thing is fake, this thing is not real?" he asked. "And I ask myself, whoever is in charge of it, what are we doing to protect the credibility of the entity that is ... saying it, so that the other side does not come out and say, 'Our own government is interfering in the election'?"

Haines said in some cases it would make sense for her or other federal agencies to debunk false claims, while in others it may be better for state or local officials to speak out.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Shannon Bond is a business correspondent at NPR, covering technology and how Silicon Valley's biggest companies are transforming how we live, work and communicate.

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