Utah could lead the way in combating election deepfakes

Former Gov. Gary Herbert reacts to Gov. Spencer Cox’s speech at the Utah Republican Party state nominating convention in Salt Lake City on April 27. A new program helps candidates authenticate digital identities amid the rise of artificial intelligence.

Former Gov. Gary Herbert reacts to Gov. Spencer Cox’s speech at the Utah Republican Party state nominating convention in Salt Lake City on April 27. A new program helps candidates authenticate digital identities amid the rise of artificial intelligence. (Megan Nielsen, Deseret News)

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SALT LAKE CITY — No, former Utah Gov. Gary Herbert is not running for president, even though a voice that sounded eerily similar to his said as much at a press conference on Tuesday. The recording was a deepfake — one that Herbert had no involvement in making.

The fake audio recording was used to illustrate the dangers of artificial intelligence in the 2024 elections and to set up an announcement about the creation of a Utah pilot program to combat deepfake AI images and audio.

While the Herbert deepfake was created to make a point, Brandon Amacher, program director at the Emerging Tech Policy Lab for Utah Valley University's Center for National Security Studies, said AI is already being used to spread misinformation across the globe.

Amacher gave several examples:

  • India's recent national election was "rife with AI election interference," Amacher said. There were falsified celebrity endorsements, candidates claiming legitimate media was AI and the circulation of doctored videos.
  • A deepfake video of State Department spokesman Matthew Miller that circulated suggested that the U.S. authorized the use of American weapons to strike deep inside Russian territory amid the conflict in Ukraine.
  • In Taiwan's 2024 election, AI was used to undermine candidate credibility and create false media stories such as the unfounded rumor that President Lai Ching Te had fathered an illegitimate child.
  • Closer to home, deepfake audio of President Joe Biden was used for political calls in New Hampshire before the presidential primary there.

These examples, and the potential for AI to affect local races come November, have prompted the Gary R. Herbert Institute for Public Policy, the Center for National Security Studies at UVU and Provo startup SureMark Digital Identity Services to partner to launch a pilot project to combat deepfakes in Utah elections. The project's scope is the races for the state's four congressional seats and the open Senate seat "by giving the candidates the ability to authenticate their digital identity for free."

In addition, voters can use a free browser plug-in that will verify digital content coming from candidates. The project is to "instill faith in the election system in voters," those involved said.

How does the program work? W. Scott Stornetta, chairman of SureMark Digital Identity Services, said there are three steps:

  1. The program verifies the identity of the candidate for public office.
  2. Content from the verified candidate is authorized.
  3. The sources are validated for the public by the free browser plugin, which will be available next month.

This is the place

At the press conference, Stornetta said Utah is an optimal place to launch the pilot project because of a tradition of the political process working in the state. The Utah Compact, the Utah Compromise and Gov. Spencer Cox's "Disagree Better" campaign were brought up as examples.

Stornetta said the aim is to "capture" the attention of all Utahns in the process.

The rise of AI may make some people complacent, thinking there's nothing they can do to differentiate what's real and what's made up, Stornetta said, but if citizens combine together and candidates are credentialed through the program, it's a way to take responsibility in a time of so much disinformation.

Having accuracy and authenticity is as important on the local level as it is nationally or globally, Herbert said.

"I'm proud to say that I believe, in fact, that we can trust the election process in the state of Utah," he said.

Looking ahead

Utah County Commissioner Amelia Powers Gardner said launching the program now is important because, over time, deepfakes will become more convincing.

"You can't just trust your eyes and ears," she said. "You need to be able to look deeper."

Amacher said 2024′s election will have some AI influence, but future elections are expected to be affected much more.

"We want to learn from this election so there is a more robust way to secure public confidence in future elections," he said.

The candidates in Utah's House races and Senate race can choose if they want to participate or not.

The pilot runs from this month until winning candidates are sworn into office in January 2025.

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Artificial IntelligencePoliticsUtahU.S.
Payton Davis


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