Deepfake of Baltimore Principal Leads to Arrest of School Employee

Equipo
By Equipo
7 Min Read

A high school athletic director in the Baltimore area was arrested on Thursday after he used artificial intelligence software, the police said, to manufacture a racist and antisemitic audio clip that impersonated the school’s principal.

Dazhon Darien, the athletic director of Pikesville High School, fabricated the recording — including a tirade about “ungrateful Black kids who can’t test their way out of a paper bag” — in an effort to smear the principal, Eric Eiswert, according to the Baltimore County Police Department.

The faked recording, which was posted on Instagram in mid-January, quickly spread, roiling Baltimore County Public Schools, which is the nation’s 22nd-largest school district and serves more than 100,000 students. While the district investigated, Mr. Eiswert, who denied making the comments, was inundated with threats to his safety, the police said. He was also placed on administrative leave, the school district said.

Now Mr. Darien is facing charges including disrupting school operations and stalking the principal.

Mr. Eiswert referred a request for comment to a trade group for principals, the Council of Administrative and Supervisory Employees, which did not return a call from a reporter. Mr. Darien, who posted bond on Thursday, could not immediately be reached for comment.

The Baltimore County case is the just the latest indication of an escalation of A.I. abuse in schools. Many cases include deepfakes, or digitally altered video, audio or images that can appear convincingly real.

Since last fall, schools across the United States have been scrambling to address troubling deepfake incidents in which male students used A.I. “nudification” apps to create fake unclothed images of their female classmates, some of them middle school students as young as 12. Now the Baltimore County deepfake voice incident points to another A.I. risk to schools nationwide — this time to veteran educators and district leaders.

Deepfake revenge slander could happen in any workplace, but it is a particularly disturbing specter to school officials entrusted with safeguarding and educating children. One Baltimore County official warned on Thursday that the fast spread of new generative A.I. tools was outstripping school protections and state laws.

“We are also entering a new, deeply concerning frontier,” Johnny Olszewski, the Baltimore County executive, said during public comments about the arrest on Thursday. He added that community leaders needed “to take a broader look at how this technology can be used and abused to harm other people.”

The police account of the Baltimore County case shows how quickly pernicious deepfake disinformation can spread in schools, causing lasting damage to educators, students and families.

According to police documents, Mr. Darien developed a grievance against Mr. Eiswert in December after the principal began investigating him. Mr. Darien had authorized a district payment of $1,916 to his roommate, police said, “under the pretense” that the roommate was working as an assistant coach for the Pikesville girls’ soccer team.

Soon after, police said, Mr. Darien used school district internet services to search for artificial intelligence tools, including from OpenAI, the developer of the ChatGPT chatbot, and Microsoft’s Bing Chat.

(The New York Times sued OpenAI and its partner, Microsoft, in December, for copyright infringement of news content related to A.I. systems.)

In mid-January, Mr. Darien emailed a deepfake audio clip impersonating the principal to himself and two other employees at the high school, according to the police. The email, with the subject line “Pikesville Principal — Disturbing Recording,” was sent from a Gmail account that appeared to belong to an unknown third party but was tied to Mr. Darien’s cellphone number, according to the police documents.

One of those school employees then sent the fabricated recording to news organizations and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, police documents say. She also forwarded it to a student who “she knew would rapidly spread the message around various social media outlets and throughout the school,” the documents say.

Soon, an Instagram account that follows local crime posted the racist fake audio, saying it was a “rant about Black students” and naming the principal as the speaker. The audio clip, which lasts less than a minute, was shared more than 27,000 times and generated more than 2,800 comments, many calling for the principal to be fired.

Police say the deepfake rant had “profound repercussions,” straining trust among families, teachers and administrators at Pikesville High.

Upset and angry parents and students flooded the school with calls. Some teachers, the police said, feared “recording devices could have been planted in various places in the school.” To address safety concerns, the Police Department increased its presence at the school.

The police also provided some safety monitoring for Mr. Eiswert, who received a barrage of harassing messages and phone calls, some threatening him and his family with violence.

In public comments during a school board meeting in January, William Burke, the executive director for the Council of Administrative and Supervisory Employees, which represents the principal, said social media and news media had allowed commentators to condemn Mr. Eiswert with “no evidence and no accountability.”

“Please don’t rush to judgment,” Mr. Burke pleaded. “Please make the investigation safe and fair.”

Two outside experts who later analyzed the recording for the Baltimore County Police Department concluded that the audio clip was manipulated. One expert said it contained “traces of A.I.-generated content with human editing after the fact,” police documents say.

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