Lawmakers including Sen. Jon Ossoff, D-Ga., along with policy experts issued a call this week at a Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearing for a comprehensive Federal online privacy law as the first step in mitigating risks and harms that artificial intelligence (AI) may pose to the American people.

“The need for a Federal privacy law in the United States is overwhelming because of the real-world harms that are happening to people now,” said Alexandra Reeve Givens, CEO of the D.C.-based nonprofit Center for Democracy and Technology, at a June 13 hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee’s subcommittee on Human Rights and the Law.

“The way that our current privacy regime exists – which is a patchwork of state laws, some sector-specific laws – relies on notice and choice, this abstract idea that users can consent to their data being taken,” Givens said. “But we know, because of the way AI uses people’s data, that that simply isn’t the case.”

She added, “We have to have baseline rules of the road established in a Federal law to limit the collection, sharing, and use of people’s private information.”

Givens noted that deepfake audios and videos – digitally altered media typically used maliciously to spread false information – are generated from people’s private photos and audio recordings.

Jennifer DeStefano, a recent victim of a kidnapping and extortion scam made possible by AI’s deepfake technologies, sat on the panel of witnesses.

Earlier this year, the mother of three had just picked up her youngest daughter from dance practice when she received a call from an unknown number. She almost let the number go to voicemail but decided to pick it up on its final ring. DeStefano says what happened over the next four minutes will haunt her for the rest of her life.

“AI is revolutionizing and unraveling the very foundation of our social fabric by creating doubt and fear in what was once never questioned, the sound of a loved one’s voice,” she testified through tears.

DeStefano recounted her experience in gripping detail during the June hearing discussing the real-world impacts of generative AI on human rights. She recalled the crying voice on the other end of the phone sounding nearly identical to her 15-old-daughter, who was away on a ski trip with her father.

The “kidnapper” claimed to have DeStefano’s daughter and threatened the child’s life if DeStefano did not bring him $50,000 in cash. Within minutes the mother was able to confirm her child was safe, but the local Scottsdale, Ariz., police department couldn’t conduct an investigation because no crime was actually committed, she recalled.

“Artificial intelligence is being weaponized to not only invoke fear and terror in the American public, but in the global community at large as it capitalizes on and redefines what we have known to be as familiar,” DeStefano said.

Sen. Ossoff, who chairs the subcommittee, sympathized with the parent saying that he and his colleagues need to work together to make these types of AI generated scams “criminal” and “severely punishable.”

Despite what happened to DeStefano, the mother said she believes that not all AI is used for “evil.”

“Listening to a lot of different areas that it can be used for good is really inspiring,” she said.

“AI, by allowing education or accessibility to certain types of specialized medicine and specialized care, that can be really beneficial. So, I don’t want to speak horribly negative about AI. What happened to me with my daughter was the tragic side of AI, but in the other sense too there’s a lot of hopeful advancements that AI will do improve life.”

There was bipartisan consensus among the committee that before the U.S. can bask in the benefits of AI, it first needs to send national privacy legislation to the President’s desk.

“After what we’ve heard today about the risks and the opportunities, it is clear that the Senate must continue and accelerate our study of machine learning, of artificial intelligence and … get our act together on a national privacy law,” Chairman Ossoff concluded. “Without national privacy legislation, our efforts to control the abuse of these technologies are substantially reduced, so that is an urgent task for the U.S. Congress.”

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