May 2, 2024 - Politics

Texas turns to fending off political cyberattacks

Illustration of a computer cursor warping a voting booth

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Aiming to safeguard elections against deepfakes and other forms of artificial intelligence manipulation, a bipartisan group of Texas lawmakers is pledging to boost campaign protections.

Why it matters: Against the backdrop of a loud national conversation about election fraud and the baseless claim of a "stolen" 2020 election, the quiet effort by the Innovation and Technology Caucus of the Texas Legislature is focused on nuts-and-bolts work to address the way AI could warp get-out-the-vote efforts by either party.

Flashback: Robocalls in New Hampshire in January used President Joe Biden's manipulated voice to tell listeners their votes were better spent in November and to skip the primary.

  • The calls were traced to two Texas-based companies, per the New Hampshire attorney general.

What they're saying: "It's not that this is inherently new, but it's so much easier for an everyday person to manipulate," state Rep. John Bucy, a Democrat from Austin who represents parts of Williamson County, said at an event in Austin last week about election disinformation. The event was co-sponsored by Google and nonpartisan political cybersecurity nonprofit Defending Digital Campaigns.

  • "It can be very scary with anybody being able to impersonate an elected official or a candidate," Bucy said.
  • "It's a negative impact on that candidate, but also could lead to a total breakdown of faith in the system."

At the same event, Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, a Southlake Republican who chairs the caucus, said that in closely contested, down-ballot races, efforts to manipulate voter turnout "will be a factor."

Zoom in: Legislative proposals next year could include requirements that campaigns add disclaimers when using AI in their campaigns or increasing penalties for violations of a state law that bars making a deepfake video with the intent to influence the outcome of an election, Capriglione said.

  • Bucy said he may reintroduce legislation requiring county, school district and other local officials to put voting information on dot-gov sites rather than dot-com sites, to make their legitimacy more obvious.
  • "How easy it would be to create a fake elections site?" Bucy said. "That's what I'm more scared of."

Reality check: It's not clear how much lawmakers can do.

  • "I'm skeptical that they can stop malicious actors from using some of these technologies," Francesca Lockhart, who heads the cybersecurity clinic at the Strauss Center for International Security and Law at the University of Texas, tells Axios. "Where I see more of a need is for more security awareness training, especially with the rise of deepfake technology."

Between the lines: Even as the House lawmakers were appearing on Google's turf to talk about election security, Texas Senate leader Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has singled out "Big Tech" as a potential threat to Texas' election integrity.

What's next: Campaign shenanigans by overseas actors are "not about influencing the actual vote count, it's about eroding trust in our institutions, because when we're battling each other, we're not battling them," former Republican congressman and presidential candidate Will Hurd said at the Google event. "The future of cybersecurity is good AI versus bad AI."

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