As reported by CNN, a high school principal in Pikesville, Maryland, found his life and career turned upside down when in January a recording suggesting the principal made racially insensitive and antisemitic remarks went viral. The school faced a flood of calls from concerned persons in the district, security was tightened, and the principal was placed on administrative leave. No doubt, a challenging situation for any human resources executive, one made far more difficult because of AI.

An investigation ensured, all the while the school principal maintained that he did not make the statements in the recording – it was not his voice, he claimed. Of course, the “recording” was good enough to put the school district on edge.  

It was not until months later, in late April, that a Baltimore County Police Department investigation concluded that the recording was a fake, a “deepfake,” generated by artificial intelligence (AI) technology. As reported by CNN, Baltimore’s County Executive, Johnny Olszewski, observed:

“Today, we are relieved to have some closure on the origins of this audio…However, it is clear that we are also entering a new, deeply concerning frontier.”

Deepfake AI is a type of artificial intelligence used to create convincing images, audio and video hoaxes. Although deepfakes might have some utility, such as for entertainment purposes, they blur the lines between reality and fiction, making it increasingly difficult to discern truth from falsehood. As in the case of the Baltimore school principal, misuse raises significant concerns, particularly in the workplace. It turns out that the deepfake recording may have arisen from an employment dispute that the principal was having with the high school’s athletic director.

The US Department of Homeland Security and other agencies have recognized the threat deepfakes present. At the same time, the technology is getting easier and easier to use and harder to identify. In this case, it took three months for the Baltimore County Policy Department to investigate and make a determination about the recording.

The World Economic Forum’s “4 ways to future-proof against deepfakes in 2024 and beyond” offers a sobering suggestion for dealing with deepfakes – zero-trust.

This mindset aligns with mindfulness practices that encourage individuals to pause before reacting to emotionally triggering content and engage with digital content intentionally and thoughtfully.

This may not be the mindset most HR professionals prefer to have at or near the top of their lists. But in this context, when presented with electronic material or even a photograph from an unknown source, despite how real it might appear, intentionality and thoughtfulness should prevail.

Consider being presented, as here, with a video, a recording, or some other image, photograph, or transcribed conversation, containing insensitive remarks purportedly made by an employee about another’s race, religion, gender, etc. An organization might not have a police department that is willing and able to assist, although they might have just as much pressure in the workplace from persons reacting to the content, believing it is authentic when it may be nothing more than a fake. Having an internal plan outlining a process for investigation and resources (internal or external) lined up to evaluate the material would help to ensure that intentionality and thoughtfulness. Such a plan might also guide decision making around the various employment decisions to be made along the way, including internal and external communications, should the investigation carry on.

This is only the beginning.

Email this postTweet this postLike this postShare this post on LinkedIn
Photo of Joseph J. Lazzarotti Joseph J. Lazzarotti

Joseph J. Lazzarotti is a principal in the Berkeley Heights, New Jersey, office of Jackson Lewis P.C. He founded and currently co-leads the firm’s Privacy, Data and Cybersecurity practice group, edits the firm’s Privacy Blog, and is a Certified Information Privacy Professional (CIPP)…

Joseph J. Lazzarotti is a principal in the Berkeley Heights, New Jersey, office of Jackson Lewis P.C. He founded and currently co-leads the firm’s Privacy, Data and Cybersecurity practice group, edits the firm’s Privacy Blog, and is a Certified Information Privacy Professional (CIPP) with the International Association of Privacy Professionals. Trained as an employee benefits lawyer, focused on compliance, Joe also is a member of the firm’s Employee Benefits practice group.

In short, his practice focuses on the matrix of laws governing the privacy, security, and management of data, as well as the impact and regulation of social media. He also counsels companies on compliance, fiduciary, taxation, and administrative matters with respect to employee benefit plans.

Privacy and cybersecurity experience – Joe counsels multinational, national and regional companies in all industries on the broad array of laws, regulations, best practices, and preventive safeguards. The following are examples of areas of focus in his practice:

  • Advising health care providers, business associates, and group health plan sponsors concerning HIPAA/HITECH compliance, including risk assessments, policies and procedures, incident response plan development, vendor assessment and management programs, and training.
  • Coached hundreds of companies through the investigation, remediation, notification, and overall response to data breaches of all kinds – PHI, PII, payment card, etc.
  • Helping organizations address questions about the application, implementation, and overall compliance with European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and, in particular, its implications in the U.S., together with preparing for the California Consumer Privacy Act.
  • Working with organizations to develop and implement video, audio, and data-driven monitoring and surveillance programs. For instance, in the transportation and related industries, Joe has worked with numerous clients on fleet management programs involving the use of telematics, dash-cams, event data recorders (EDR), and related technologies. He also has advised many clients in the use of biometrics including with regard to consent, data security, and retention issues under BIPA and other laws.
  • Assisting clients with growing state data security mandates to safeguard personal information, including steering clients through detailed risk assessments and converting those assessments into practical “best practice” risk management solutions, including written information security programs (WISPs). Related work includes compliance advice concerning FTC Act, Regulation S-P, GLBA, and New York Reg. 500.
  • Advising clients about best practices for electronic communications, including in social media, as well as when communicating under a “bring your own device” (BYOD) or “company owned personally enabled device” (COPE) environment.
  • Conducting various levels of privacy and data security training for executives and employees
  • Supports organizations through mergers, acquisitions, and reorganizations with regard to the handling of employee and customer data, and the safeguarding of that data during the transaction.
  • Representing organizations in matters involving inquiries into privacy and data security compliance before federal and state agencies including the HHS Office of Civil Rights, Federal Trade Commission, and various state Attorneys General.

Benefits counseling experience – Joe’s work in the benefits counseling area covers many areas of employee benefits law. Below are some examples of that work:

  • As part of the Firm’s Health Care Reform Team, he advises employers and plan sponsors regarding the establishment, administration and operation of fully insured and self-funded health and welfare plans to comply with ERISA, IRC, ACA/PPACA, HIPAA, COBRA, ADA, GINA, and other related laws.
  • Guiding clients through the selection of plan service providers, along with negotiating service agreements with vendors to address plan compliance and operations, while leveraging data security experience to ensure plan data is safeguarded.
  • Counsels plan sponsors on day-to-day compliance and administrative issues affecting plans.
  • Assists in the design and drafting of benefit plan documents, including severance and fringe benefit plans.
  • Advises plan sponsors concerning employee benefit plan operation, administration and correcting errors in operation.

Joe speaks and writes regularly on current employee benefits and data privacy and cybersecurity topics and his work has been published in leading business and legal journals and media outlets, such as The Washington Post, Inside Counsel, Bloomberg, The National Law Journal, Financial Times, Business Insurance, HR Magazine and NPR, as well as the ABA Journal, The American Lawyer, Law360, Bender’s Labor and Employment Bulletin, the Australian Privacy Law Bulletin and the Privacy, and Data Security Law Journal.

Joe served as a judicial law clerk for the Honorable Laura Denvir Stith on the Missouri Court of Appeals.