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Exclusive: US detected deepfakes from China and Iran that aimed to affect elections

Agents working for the Chinese and Iranian governments prepared fake content generated by artificial intelligence as part of a campaign to influence United States voters in the final weeks of the 2020 election campaign, they told CNN former and current U.S. officials briefed on the intelligence.

Chinese and Iranian agents never publicly released the deepfake audio or video, but the details, which are only now coming to light, demonstrate concerns that US authorities had four years ago about the willingness of foreign powers to amplify false information about the process. of voting.

The National Security Agency (NSA) gathered information that gave US officials insights into China and Iran's capabilities in producing deepfakes, one of the sources said.

Now, with deepfake audio and video much easier to produce and with the presidential election just six months away, U.S. officials are increasingly concerned about how a foreign influence campaign could exploit artificial intelligence to deceive the voters.

In an exercise in the White House Situation Room last December in preparation for the 2024 elections, senior U.S. officials struggled with how to respond to a scenario in which Chinese agents create a fake AI-generated video depicting a Senate candidate destroying ballots, like the CNN had already reported.

In a briefing last week, FBI officials warned that AI increases the ability of foreign states to spread election disinformation.

It is unclear what was depicted in the deepfakes that Chinese and Iranian agents prepared in 2020, according to the sources, or why they were not ultimately put into practice during the elections.

At the time, some U.S. officials who analyzed the information were unimpressed, believing it showed that China and Iran lacked the ability to deploy deepfakes in a way that would have a serious impact on the 2020 presidential election, a former official said. from high-ranking US officials to CNN .

“The technology has to be good; I don’t think it was that good,” said the former employee. “Secondly, you need to have an appetite for risk. China, no. Iran, probably yes.”

Artificial intelligence

Keep an eye on your opponents

The NSA has continued to collect information about foreign adversaries developing deepfakes and the potential threat they pose to U.S. elections now that the technology has advanced dramatically over the past four years, the former official added, pointing out that in 2020, there were no example, a great language model like ChatGPT that was easy to use.

A CNN requested comment from the NSA.

US authorities have maintained a high level of visibility into AI and deepfake advances made by countries including China, Iran and Russia since the 2020 elections.

But putting that intelligence to use within the U.S. remains a challenge, the former official said.

“The question is how quickly can we detect an anomaly and then quickly share it within the United States,” the former official told CNN . “Are we winning the race against a range of adversaries that may operate in the US? That’s the challenge.”

The threat of deepfakes and foreign influence will be on the agenda at a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on Wednesday, when lawmakers will have the rare opportunity to publicly interrogate the director of national intelligence and other senior officials about threats. foreigners to the elections.

Although they did not deploy their deepfakes in 2020, Iranian government agents made a brazen attempt that year to influence voters, imitating the far-right group Proud Boys and releasing a video purporting to show the hacking of a US voter registration database. USA, according to US prosecutors.

“The fact that the Iranians used the Proud Boys crap but didn’t try deep fakes was either a lack of faith in the capabilities or a sign of a lack of clear internal guidance,” a person familiar with the intelligence told CNN .

Lost in translation

For foreign influence operations to be effective, they also need to resonate with the American public, something China has struggled with, the former senior U.S. official said.

“I think it’s clearly a cultural piece,” the former employee said. “They really have a very difficult understanding of divisive issues or necessarily how to deal with those issues, which the Russians don’t.”

Generative AI, or AI used to create video, audio, images or text, has made foreign influencers more efficient at creating content, but “there is no evidence that it has made them or their campaigns more effective,” said Lee Foster , an expert in tracking online foreign influence operations.

“So far, generative AI has not helped actors solve the main bottleneck they face: distribution,” said Foster, co-founder of artificial intelligence security firm Aspect Labs.

“Actors rarely had difficulty creating content. Getting it in front of the right eyes on a meaningful scale was and continues to be the sticking point, which AI has so far not helped them overcome.”

Foster and other experts have warned against exaggerating the impact of foreign influence operations, including those that use AI, because doing so benefits the propagandists themselves.

Disinformation in the USA

But the US continues to be fertile ground for conspiracy theories, whether of domestic or foreign origin.

Nearly 70% of Republicans and Republican-leaning voters said President Joe Biden's 2020 election victory was not legitimate, according to a poll from CNN released in August.

And positive views of many government institutions are “at historic lows,” with just 16% of the public saying they always or most of the time trust the federal government, according to a Pew Research Center survey released in September.

The 2024 US elections will present new opportunities for foreign influence operations.

U.S. military aid to Ukraine is essentially at risk, with Democrats largely supporting Biden on the Ukraine issue and some Republican leaders, including former President Donald Trump, increasingly moving away from foreign aid.

FBI officials are concerned that the war in Ukraine — and U.S. support for Kiev — could be a “heartwarming event for the Russians” in terms of conducting interference or influence operations aimed at U.S. elections, a senior official said. FBI officials told reporters last week.

Source: CNN Brasil

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