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Fake Biden robocall linked to Texas-based companies, New Hampshire attorney general announces

2 weeks 5 days 6 hours ago Tuesday, February 06 2024 Feb 6, 2024 February 06, 2024 3:31 PM February 06, 2024 in News - Texas news
Source: CNN
By: David Wright, Yahya Abou-Ghazala and Brian Fung, CNN
Fake Biden robocall linked to Texas-based companies, New Hampshire attorney general announces. grinvalds/iStockphoto/Getty Images
Originally Published: 06 FEB 24 12:32 ET
Updated: 06 FEB 24 15:58 ET

(CNN) — A robocall that used an AI voice resembling President Joe Biden’s to advise New Hampshire voters against voting in the state’s presidential primary has been linked to a pair of Texas-based telecommunications companies, the state’s attorney general announced on Tuesday.

New Hampshire Attorney General John Formella, in a news conference on Tuesday, said the source of the calls were linked to two businesses: Life Corporation and Lingo Telecom. Formella identified Walter Monk as the owner of Life Corporation.

Formella said the investigation is ongoing and suggested it involves additional entities other than Life Corporation and Lingo Telecom. He did not say who, or what entity, was ultimately behind the disinformation campaign and the creation of the AI audio. No charges have been filed, Formella said.

“We have issued a cease-and-desist letter to Life Corporation that orders the company to immediately desist violating New Hampshire election laws. We have also opened a criminal investigation, and we are taking next steps in that investigation, sending document preservation notices and subpoenas to Life Corporation, Lingo Telecom, and any other individual or entity,” Formella said.

Formella said that the robocalls numbered in the “thousands,” though he offered a wide range of 5,000 to 25,000.

The calls were made ahead of New Hampshire’s presidential primary in January, urging New Hampshire voters not to vote in the contest and instead “save” their vote for the November election.

“Republicans have been trying to push nonpartisan and Democratic voters to participate in their primary. What a bunch of malarkey,” says the digitally altered Biden voice in the call. “We know the value of voting Democratic when our votes count. It’s important that you save your vote for the November election. We’ll need your help in electing Democrats up and down the ticket. Voting this Tuesday only enables the Republicans in their quest to elect Donald Trump again.”

Biden’s campaign at the time said it had been referred to the attorney general, and slammed the call as disinformation.

“I think this case is unique in that it is providing us a real-life example of an attempt to use AI to interfere with an election,” Formella said on Tuesday. “That’s been something that we’ve been concerned about in the law enforcement for a while, and it’s certainly something that state attorneys general have talked about. But we had not seen as concrete of an example as this, days before a primary, an attempt to use AI to interfere with an election or to mislead voters.”

Formella also said that other unnamed entities potentially had relevant information about the robocalls, though he declined to share specifics.

“I’m not going to give you an exact number but I can say it’s beyond the two – it’s beyond Texas Life Corporation, Walter Monk, and Lingo Telecom. There are other entities that we think have relevant information, and I would not be surprised if we discover additional entities or individuals beyond those that we have discovered up to this point,” he said.

Biden campaign manager Julie Chavez Rodriguez commended Formella in a statement on Tuesday.

“Disinformation aimed at suppressing voting and deliberately undermining free and fair elections is an unacceptable threat, and we commend the New Hampshire Attorney General for taking the matter seriously and moving swiftly as a powerful example against further efforts to disrupt democratic elections,” she said.

An AI voice creation tool

The fake audio was created using an AI voice creation tool named ElevenLabs, according to two separate analyses by the security company Pindrop and by digital forensic experts at University of California, Berkeley.

ElevenLabs told CNN in a statement that it is “dedicated to preventing the misuse of audio AI tools” and that it takes appropriate action in response to reports by authorities, but declined to comment on the specific Biden deepfake call.

Monk has had run-ins with US robocall regulations before, said Formella and the Federal Communications Commission. On Monday, the FCC issued a cease-and-desist letter to Lingo Telecom and said both Lingo and Monk’s company, Life Corporation, have previously been warned about apparent illegal robocall violations.

In July of 2003, the FCC issued a citation to Life Corporation for delivering “one or more prerecorded unsolicited advertisements to residential telephone lines.”

In the citation, the FCC said Monk’s company delivered the prerecorded advertisement calls to telephone subscribers who did not have a business relationship with the company and did not authorize the calls.

The FCC’s citation found that Life Corporation did not disclose required information in the prerecorded calls – including the name of the caller, who the call is made on behalf of, and an address or telephone number.

The citation — which is addressed to Life Corporation along with 16 other business aliases for the company — notes that the unsolicited advertisement calls were in violation of the Communications Act of 1934, as well as the FCC’s rules regarding telephone solicitation.

Included in the citation is a warning that subsequent violations would result in financial penalties of up $11,000 for each such violation or each day of a continuing violation.

Telecom companies that persistently facilitate illegal robocalls can and have been forcibly disconnected from the US telephone network by FCC order, as part of a wider crackdown on illegal robocalls by state and federal officials.

More than 50 attorneys general from both political parties wrote to Life Corporation on Tuesday about the AI-generated robocall, as part of a task force focused on anti-robocall litigation.

The attorneys general expressed concerns that Life Corporation or others “may seek to replicate in each of our respective states” the type of deepfake calls that hit New Hampshire. The letter told Life Corporation “that it should cease originating any illegal call traffic immediately,” adding that the calls risked violating numerous laws.

In social media profiles reviewed by CNN, Monk describes himself as a serial entrepreneur and, in an interview with Dallas Magazine in 2016, discussed many of his business ventures that failed. The list included a company marketing “upscale survival gear” to women, which Monk reportedly spent more than $1 million of his own money on but that Dallas Magazine wrote was a “failure of epic proportions.”

One of Monk’s ventures, a company known as Voice Broadcasting, has been paid to send political robocalls and advertises the ability to send 8 million calls per day on behalf of clients. When CNN attempted to contact Voice Broadcasting, a person who answered the phone said Monk was “very busy” and that the company is “undecided” on whether to issue a statement.

Little is known about Monk’s own political history. According to Federal Election Commission filings reviewed by CNN, Monk and his ex-wife each donated $5,000 in 2008 to PLR PAC, a Kansas-based political action committee that has spent most of its receipts on advertisements airing on Spanish-language broadcast channels.

Senior US law enforcement officials have been closely monitoring the New Hampshire robocall incident to determine if a federal crime was committed, a senior US official familiar with the matter told CNN.

The official declined to discuss the status of any investigation into the robocalls, but said that the Justice Department has brought at least one recent case against a defendant accused of suppressing votes by spreading false information. That case was against Douglass Mackey, a social media influencer accused of targeting Black voters on Twitter with false messages claiming they could vote for Hillary Clinton via text message in the 2016 election. Mackey was sentenced to seven months in prison in October.

CNN’s Donie O’Sullivan, Allison Gordon, Sean Lyngaas, Evan Perez and Andrew Kaczynski contributed to this report.

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