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AI Deepfakin' Democracy

Report Warns: Over 16 Billion Political Robocalls Target Americans as Deepfake Threat Looms Over 2024 Elections 

Americans have already received over 16 billion political robocalls this year, and scammers are poised to plague the 2024 elections with the latest AI deceptions and deepfake tricks, according to a report released by Transaction Network Services (TNS). As the nation prepares for one of the most pivotal electoral contests in its history, the spectre of manipulated audio and video content looms large.  

The TNS Q1 2024 Robocall Investigation Report highlights three primary categories of political scam calls: fraudulent campaign donations, election surveys, and false voting registration. These are delivered through robocalls, which are automated phone calls that play a pre-recorded message. TNS anticipates a surge in AI-generated calls during the summer months, with activity peaking in July and August. 

Rise of Voice Deepfakes in Election Disruption 

Voice cloning technology, capable of replicating voices with alarming accuracy, poses a serious threat to electoral integrity. Scammers exploit social media content or audio snippets to create deceptive calls, often targeting vulnerable populations during critical election phases. TNS’s report looked at robocalls – automated phone calls that uses a pre-recorded message instead of a live person. 

In the aftermath of the Biden deepfake incident leading up to the New Hampshire primary, where voters were bombarded with synthetic recordings urging them to abstain from participation, concerns regarding the malicious use of AI-driven voice cloning are intensifying. The ability to perfectly copy voices poses a serious threat to elections, as scammers can use it to spread disinformation and discourage voting. 

The early primary contests analysed by TNS provided a grim preview of the challenges ahead, as the surge in robocall activity during key moments highlighted the vulnerability of the electoral process.  

Leading up to and following Super Tuesday, robocall activity surged significantly across several states, emphasising the widespread scale of the issue. For instance: 

  • California residents received over 400,000 political spam calls in the lead-up to Super Tuesday. 
  • Texas consistently faced 20,000 to 30,000 political spam calls every week in the first quarter of 2024. 
  • North Carolina endured over 60,000 political spam calls in early January alone, followed by sustained hits of 15,000 to 35,000 calls per week. 
  • Massachusetts encountered an overwhelming volume of up to 100,000 calls weekly during the crucial Super Tuesday period. 

Looking ahead, the report outlined, “We anticipate a major increase in bad actor traffic starting in the summer, then surging after the July and August conventions. September and October could easily surpass the short but sharp 2x to 3x spikes we saw during the primaries, but this time for longer durations of eight to ten weeks.” 

Three Scam Categories Unveiled: Donations, Surveys, Voting 

Campaign donations emerge as a common target for fraudulent schemes, with illegitimate callers often disregarding regulations established by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). By spoofing names of political entities, scammers seek to exploit unsuspecting donors, emphasising the need for vigilance and adherence to verified donation channels. 

Similarly, election surveys serve as a pretext for extracting personal information from respondents under the guise of offering prizes or compensation.  

The report also highlights the proliferation of vote-by-phone scams, a highly illegal practice aimed at alienating voters and undermining the electoral process. These deceptive tactics not only target identity theft but also aim to obstruct individuals from voting by falsely implying that they have already participated. 

These illegitimate campaigns break regulations, employing spoofed identities and false pretences to deceive unsuspecting voters. In the face of this attack, voters are urged to exercise caution and verify information through official channels to thwart fraudulent schemes. 

Despite regulatory efforts to curb the misuse of artificial voices in robocalls, the rapid evolution of deepfake technology poses a challenge to electoral integrity. As bad actors hone their tactics and exploit key electoral moments, the risk of voter suppression and electoral interference looms large. 

Here are some key steps you can take to shield yourself from these unwanted calls and the scams they often promote: 

  • Block unknown numbers with call blocking apps or carrier/network features. 
  • Don’t answer suspicious calls. 
  • Register with Do Not Call lists. 
  • Hang up on robocalls, don’t engage. 
  • Report robocalls to authorities. 

Amidst the 2024 election season, the TNS report emphasises the need for proactive measures against deepfake deception. Carriers, policymakers, and voters must unite to strengthen defences and preserve democratic integrity.

Val Dockrell is a London-based Senior Investigator and Open Source Intelligence (“OSINT”) specialist who has led in-depth investigations in multiple jurisdictions around the world. She also speaks several languages and is a member of the Fraud Women’s Network. Her X (formerly Twitter) handle is @ValDockrell.