Haines: US must ‘move with urgency’ to prepare for emerging tech threats like generative AI

"There's just no question that with generative AI you can be far more sophisticated in your production of misinformation and disinformation,” Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines warned.
Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines speaks about digital threats, at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace April 24, 2023 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

China, Russia, Iran and other nations are increasingly exploiting existing and emerging technologies — like surveillance biometrics and generative artificial intelligence — to advance authoritarianism, enable digital repression and undermine democratic governance globally, U.S. Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines warned on Monday.

During an event hosted by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, she spotlighted those three nations’ recent models and methods for deploying and exporting capabilities to facilitate dictatorial practices. New frameworks and “built-in” technology standards will be needed to promote stronger resilience against those growing threats, she suggested.

“In my view, the intelligence community is a critical ally in the fight against authoritarianism and should contribute to the promotion of norms that help to protect against the primary tools of digital authoritarianism and repression, which are censorship, misinformation and disinformation, mass surveillance and invasive spyware used to suppress public debate,” she said. 

Each year, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) conducts and releases a report on worldwide threats to U.S. national security. Haines confirmed the latest review, launched in March 2023, was the first annual threat assessment to devote an entire section to digital authoritarianism.   


“We need to move with urgency. During the coming years, we can expect that governments will grow more sophisticated in their use of existing repressive technologies — and they’ll learn quickly how to exploit new and more intrusive technologies, particularly automated surveillance and identity resolution techniques,” she said.

Recent assessments show that foreign governments are already using digital information and communication technologies to monitor and suppress political debate domestically, as well as in their expatriate and diaspora communities abroad. As these technologies, policies and mechanisms are exported and proliferate globally, democratic governance efforts will likely erode, she added.

According to ODNI’s latest evaluations, capabilities and approaches for monitoring and limiting dissent “are on a trajectory to become even more pervasive, targeted and complex in the next few years,” Haines noted. She also pointed to predictions that “generative artificial intelligence will only increase the sophistication that such regimes can use to deploy such tools, making them that much more difficult to counter.”

Generative AI is an emerging subfield of the technology underpinning the making of large language models that can generate audio, code, images, text, videos and other content when prompted by humans. ChatGPT, which has made headlines and exploded in popularity, is one prominent example of generative artificial intelligence technology.

From Haines’ perspective, these nascent but rapidly evolving tools are “making it easier to be surprised by significant developments” for members of the intelligence community. 


“And there’s just no question that with generative AI you can be far more sophisticated in your production of misinformation and disinformation,” she said.

China, Russia, Iran — and now, increasingly other nations — are also using internet disruptions as a tactic to silence dissenters or repress certain communities, she noted. Often, they’ll do so during protests or elections.

“In fact, last year, governments and other actors shut down the internet at least 187 times in 35 countries, which was a new record,” Haines confirmed. 

While highlighting what ODNI views as the Chinese, Russian and Iranian models for applying technology-based mechanisms for control within and beyond their own borders, Haines called China “the global leader in digital repression.” Beijing “has a comparative advantage in the global export of facial recognition and AI,” she noted. Moreover, “autocracies and weak democracies are more likely to acquire this technology from China than from other countries,” Haines said, including during periods of political unrest.

Broadly, the national intelligence chief expressed her team’s desire to help prompt innovative thinking on technical standards, frameworks and more intuitive design approaches that can incorporate and promote “resilience” practices aligned with freedom of expression and open governance.


“We have a lot of ‘building into our design’ for cybersecurity that we’re trying to promote. You should also be doing that for democratic resilience, in a sense, right?” Haines said.

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