UNITED STATES NEWS

Authorities target two Texas firms in probe of AI-generated robocalls before New Hampshire’s primary

Feb 6, 2024, 10:13 AM

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — Authorities issued cease-and-desist orders Tuesday against two Texas companies they believe were connected to robocalls that used artificial intelligence to mimic President Joe Biden’s voice and discourage people from voting in New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary last month.

New Hampshire Attorney General John Formella said investigators have identified the source of the calls as Life Corporation and said they were transmitted by a company called Lingo Telecom. New Hampshire issued cease-and-desist orders and subpoenas to both companies, while the Federal Communications Commission issued a cease-and-desist letter to the telecommunications company, Formella said. In a statement, the FCC said it was trying to stop “behavior that violates voter suppression laws.”

During a news conference to discuss the investigation, Formella described the calls as the clearest and possibly first known attempt to use AI to interfere with an election in the U.S. He noted that the calls went well beyond the political fliers that have landed in voters’ mailboxes during past elections.

“Calls using AI with something as deceptive as trying to clone the voice of the president of the United States, we haven’t seen something like that before so close to an election with such a blatant attempt to mislead voters,” Formella said. “We don’t want it to be the first of many. We want this to be an example for us to point to, but also an enforcement example for anyone out there who would consider doing this.”

A message left for Life Corporation’s owner, Walter Monk, at his company Wholesale Communication was not immediately returned. Alex Valencia, who was named in an FCC letter as the chief compliance officer at Lingo Telecom, did not immediately return an emailed request for comment. A message also was left for Lingo’s chief executive officer.

The recorded message was sent to between 5,000 and 25,000 voters two days before the Jan. 23 primary. It used a voice similar to Biden’s, employed his often-used phrase, “What a bunch of malarkey” and falsely suggested that voting in the primary would preclude voters from casting a ballot in November’s general election.

Biden won the Democratic primary as a write-in candidate after he kept his name off the ballot in deference to South Carolina’s new lead-off position for the Democratic primaries.

The calls falsely showed up to recipients as coming from the personal cellphone number of Kathy Sullivan, a former state Democratic Party chair who helps run Granite for America, a super PAC that supported the Biden write-in campaign. Formella said at least 10 people who received the calls then called Sullivan.

Sullivan praised investigators Monday for their speed and effort.

“Anyone who tries to suppress the vote in a democracy is a disgrace,” she said in an email.

The apparent attempt at voter suppression using rapidly advancing generative AI technology is one example of what experts warn will make 2024 a year of unprecedented election disinformation around the world.

Biden’s campaign praised the investigation into the calls.

“Disinformation aimed at suppressing voting and deliberately undermining free and fair elections is an unacceptable threat, and we commend the New Hampshire Attorney General for taking the matter seriously and moving swiftly as a powerful example against further efforts to disrupt democratic elections,” campaign manager Julie Chávez Rodriguez said.

The FCC’s cease-and-desist letter to Lingo Telecom said the investigation involved working with the Industry Traceback Group, a consortium of telecom and broadband industry service providers that can trace calls to their source, even if they have been “spoofed” to make it look like they came from someone else.

The letter said once Lingo Telecom was identified as the original provider for the calls, the company identified Life Corporation as the party who initiated them. According to New Hampshire authorities, Lingo Telecom also suspended services to Life Corporation after learning of the investigation.

Josh Bercu, executive director of the Industry Traceback Group, confirmed the organization was involved in the investigation and was able to trace the source of the calls within four hours. He declined to comment further on the case.

Formella said charges could be brought under New Hampshire’s voter suppression law — a felony punishable by up to seven years in prison or under two federal laws, the Truth in Caller ID Act and the Telephone Consumer Protection Act. Each also carries the potential for thousands of dollars in fines. The FCC last week proposed explicitly criminalizing unsolicited robocalls that use voices made with artificial intelligence.

He said the investigation is just beginning but wanted to send a strong message to deter others who might be tempted to interfere in this year’s elections.

“Our message is clear: Law enforcement across the country is unified on a bipartisan basis and ready to work together to combat any attempt to undermine our elections,” he said.

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Swenson reported from New York. Associated Press researcher Rhonda Schafner in New York contributed to this report.

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The Associated Press receives support from several private foundations to enhance its explanatory coverage of elections and democracy. See more about AP’s democracy initiative here. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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Authorities target two Texas firms in probe of AI-generated robocalls before New Hampshire’s primary