July 21, 2024
Sound waves (Digitally Generated)

The FCC has proposed a $6 million fine for the scammer who used voice-cloning tech to impersonate President Biden in a series of illegal robocalls during a New Hampshire primary election. It’s more about robocalls than AI, but the agency is clearly positioning this as a warning to other would-be high-tech scammers.

As you may recall, in January, many voters in New Hampshire received a call purporting to be a message from the president telling them not to vote in the upcoming primary. This was, of course, fake — a voice clone of President Biden using tech that has become widely available over the last couple years.

While creating a fake voice has been possible for a long time, generative AI platforms have made it trivial: Dozens of services offer cloned voices with few restrictions or oversight. You can make your own Biden voice pretty easily with a minute or two of his speeches, which naturally are easily found online.

What you can’t do, the FCC and several law enforcement agencies have made clear, is use that fake Biden to suppress voters, via robocalls that were already illegal.

“We will act swiftly and decisively to ensure that bad actors cannot use U.S. telecommunications networks to facilitate the misuse of generative AI technology to interfere with elections, defraud consumers, or compromise sensitive data,” said chief of the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau, Loyaan Egal, in a press release.

“Political consultant” Steve Kramer was the primary perpetrator, though he enlisted the help of the shady Life Corporation (previously charged with illegal robocalls) and the calling services of shady telecom Lingo, AKA Americatel, AKA BullsEyeComm, AKA Clear Choice Communications, AKA Excel Telecommunications, AKA Impact Telecom, AKA Matrix Business Technologies, AKA Startec Global Communications, AKA Trinsic Communications, AKA VarTec Telecom.

Kramer is “apparently” in violation of several rules — but as yet there are no criminal proceedings against him or his collaborators. This is a limitation of the FCC’s power: They must work with local or federal law enforcement to put weight behind their determinations of liability as an expert agency.

The $6 million fine is more like a ceiling or aspiration; as with the FTC and others, the actual amount paid is often far less for numerous reasons, but even so, it’s a significant sum. The next step is for Kramer to respond to the allegations, though separate actions are being taken against Lingo, or whatever they call themselves now that they’ve been caught again, which may result in fines or lost licenses.

AI-generated voices were officially declared illegal to use in robocalls in February, after the case above prompted the question of whether they counted as “artificial” — and the FCC decided, quite sensibly, that they do.

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