Voters look over their ballots at a polling location during early voting on February 22, 2024 in Columbia, South Carolina.

Voters look over their ballots at a polling location during early voting on February 22, 2024 in Columbia, South Carolina. Sean Rayford / Getty Images

FBI: Prepare for an election year with fast-paced threats, powered by bad guys with AI

The technology could make the world’s best hackers even better.

The rise of generative AI will make election security extra tricky this year, the FBI’s director warned. But a burgeoning challenge, he said, will be when “sophisticated” hackers use the tech to become “even more elite.”

“In the U.S., as everyone here knows, has confronted foreign malign influence threats in the past. This election cycle, the U.S. will face more adversaries moving at a faster pace and enabled by new technology,” Christopher Wray, the head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, said during an Intelligence and National Security Alliance event on Thursday. “Advances in generative AI, for instance, are lowering the barrier to entry, making it easier for both more and less sophisticated foreign adversaries to engage in malign influence, while making foreign influence efforts—efforts by players both old and new—more realistic, and more difficult to detect.”

Artificial intelligence acts like a performance enhancer for cyber criminals, in a way, turning “mediocre bad guys” into intermediate ones, Wray said. “And that's not good news either. Right? The last thing we need is a bunch of intermediate-level bad guys.”

Right now, more sophisticated hackers use AI to boost efficiency, “to increase the speed and scale of their efforts. But we are coming towards a day, very soon, where what I would call the experts, most sophisticated adversaries are going to find ways to use AI to be even more elite,” Wray said. 

To prepare for that, the FBI wants to focus on ways to defend against AI by working with the private sector to stay ahead of threats, and also protecting tech companies’ intellectual property from foreign adversaries.

“People tend to forget that the best innovation in the world of AI is in the U.S.,” he said. “Because what we are really worried about is the Chinese government, which already has stolen more American personal and corporate data than every nation, big or small, combined.”

Chinese hackers have been linked to breaches of U.S. critical infrastructure, government entities, and private sector targets. But there’s growing concern from U.S. officials that China’s hacking program is expanding beyond lurking on networks to direct attacks. So, adding AI into the mix could exponentially increase hacking abilities, Wray said. 

“Yes. AI: incredibly exciting, great promise, all kinds of cool stuff that can change the world as we know it. But because we're an agency, first and foremost that is trying to defend America, we're probably more focused on how the adversary is using it.”