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Welcome back to What’s Next, where we report on the intersection of law and technology. Today, we talk with Stanford’s Riana Pfefferkorn about deepfakes and why lawyers need to care about this alarming issue. Also, autonomous vehicles could affect our zoning laws (think fewer parking garages). More on that random legal aspect, and more, below.  

If you follow technology, it’s likely you’re in a panic over deepfakes—altered videos that employ artificial intelligence and are nearly impossible to detect. Or else you’re over it already. For lawyers, a better course may lie somewhere in between. We asked Riana Pfefferkorn, associate director of surveillance and cybersecurity at Stanford Law School’s Center for Internet and Society, to explain (sans the alarmist rhetoric) why deepfakes should probably be on your radar.

How long have you been focused on the phenomenon of deepfake videos? What is it about deepfakes that most interests you?

I first got interested in deepfakes in the spring of 2018, when I was co-teaching a course on cybersecurity law and policy at Stanford. The other two instructors were a professor of computer science named Dan Boneh and a fellow at the Hoover Institution, Andrew Grotto, who used to be a top cybersecurity policy official at the White House. The two of them had been working on a paper together about deepfakes, and they talked about that during our final session of class.

That piqued my interest, because deepfakes get at a concept that is very important in both encryption and cybersecurity more generally: authentication. How can I trust that the person I think I’m chatting with over a messaging app is in fact that person and not an interloper? How can I trust that a piece of information I’m retrieving from a database is accurate and correct, and wasn’t tampered with at some point before I pulled it? And what kind of proof will satisfy me, depending on the context? That will be different if I’m acting as a fact-finder in a criminal case in court, versus if I’m just casually texting with a friend.

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