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Social media tracking tools used by UNC raise speech and privacy concerns

In this age of advanced technology, it is becoming easier for law enforcement agencies to monitor social media posts and online communications to detect potential threats. However, this means law enforcement can monitor online posts for other purposes as well.

At what point should that ability raise concerns about our rights to privacy and free speech?

this week, A nasty article in the Dallas Morning News Details have surfaced about a program called Social Sentinel (now called Navigate360) that is being employed by at least 30 universities, including UNC, to check student social media accounts. (UNC still employs the service, but a university spokeswoman said the contract would not be renewed once it expires in October.)

Read the article here.

The program was marketed as a way for schools to check social media to find students who might harm themselves or others. However, investigative reporters have discovered that the service is also being marketed and used to monitor student demonstrations. This was sometimes aimed at ‘mitigating’ and ‘preventing’ protests.

There’s no evidence that any university has actually gone this far, but we’ve noticed that the company behind Social Sentinel has gone even further. The school has been told that it is possible to monitor the student’s private emails and her public social media posts.

Ari Sen is co-author of the article Tracking: How Universities Use AI to Monitor Student Protests. He is also a UNC alum of his, and from 2017 he began to take an interest in the subject while observing the Silent His Sam protests that took place through 2018.

Aaron Keck of 97.9 Hill spoke with Sen about the article. Click here to listen to their conversation.


Aaron Keck: How did the story come about?

Alisen: I was a student at UNC just a few years ago. The protests over Silent Sam were happening all around me. I was very intrigued and started requesting materials from the university. I started recovering thousands of pages of documents. Among those documents was the contract for this social sentinel service. So I wrote a story about it, and it got me thinking: If UNC is using Social Sentinel to monitor campus protests, then many other universities are doing this for the same purpose. I think you are using

Keck: What did you learn?

Sen: In the end, we collected over 56,000 pages of documents from schools across the country. We also interviewed school officials and experts. And what we’ve learned is that Social Sentinel isn’t marketed as a surveillance or surveillance tool, but (but) is often billed as a tool that can mitigate or forestall protests. , the university was actually using it for that purpose. I understand.

Keck: What did you find about UNC and how it’s used here in Chapel Hill?

Sen: The first article I wrote in 2019 revealed that UNC was using Social Sentinel, and in 2017 that it was using some kind of social media monitoring tool to monitor Silent Sam protesters. I knew When the statue was demolished, UNC police entered specific keywords associated with the statue into a social sentinel service to reveal information about the statue protest.

Keck: I know this started with UNC research, but what is UNC’s position with respect to other universities on how to use this program? How is it different?

Sen: I think they are very proactive in their service. Many of the universities we surveyed have since stopped using the Social Sentinel service, but UNC still uses the tool, an outlier in its own right. (Editor’s note: UNC has told Chapelboro that it has no plans to renew the contract, which expires in October. See the university’s statement below.) As you know, we found 37 colleges across the country using the service, although the (real) number is likely higher, but all colleges monitor protests on their campuses. I am not using this tool for That’s exactly what happened at UNC.

Keck: Is Social Sentinel unique? Are there other such services that other universities may be using without actually joining this particular company?

Sen: Yes there is. I think it’s more common in the K-12 space. In the K-12 space, you’ll also find access to email, Google Docs, and more. There is a service called Geofeedia that offers very similar functionality, and UNC apparently used that service in conjunction with his SBI to track keywords and hashtags. Emails we have obtained show that in 2015 he was asking UNC (also) SBI to track student protests using these keywords and hashtags. Geofeedia actually laid off half of his staff in 2016 when he was caught doing this by the ACLU. A sort of implosion – but the use of (Social Sentinel) by UNC is almost a continuation of Geofeedia (was).

Keck: You mentioned email monitoring. This is what he heard earlier this year regarding the UNC, and in that case faculty. But I think that’s what you looked into too. To the extent that colleges and universities use technology like this to look at student emails – this is a whole other level of privacy concern.

Sen: absolutely. As a result, we learned that starting around 2019, Social Sentinel began offering colleges the ability to monitor student college email accounts. I didn’t find any specific universities using this service, but I thought it was very relevant. As I said, we found 37 universities using this service, but weren’t able to get comprehensive documentation for all of them. So it is quite possible that today or in the past there are universities in the US that use this email monitoring service to monitor private her messages between students.

Keck: As for social media, that information is really public because it is social media and it exists all over the world. So when the Public Security Bureau tried to justify this, saying, “Look, we’re just monitoring public information. We’re not trying to interfere with protests or anything like that.” As said, it would be terrible if they used this information to disrupt, deter, or prevent protests. What do they say when you’re talking to university officials, whether it’s UNC or other universities? How do they justify the use of this technology?

Sen: As you said, a lot of what I hear is, “Well, this is just public information, with no real expectation of privacy.” But there are two concerns here. First, the university tells students, “We use this technology. We use it to keep you safe. No universities are actively speaking to, and now, like my article at UNC, there have been a few universities where journalists have been able to expose the use of this service, but there has been a real lack of transparency. rice field.

Even if they were just talking about public information, what the experts I spoke to really feared was that students were afraid to cool down and express themselves online. , the police may be able to trace the network. If you see this person tweeting at that person, you can actually build a whole network of activist or protest groups to coordinate the demonstration. I don’t know what to do with

Keck: I’m glad you mentioned transparency. We also think of Brighton McConnell, his director of Our News. He just recently tweeted that when he was at his UNC, he often said when he was talking to student demonstrators that he felt being watched by the university. And this confirms what they had been thinking all along.

Sen: I heard those same concerns while I was there. I was told by my students: We believe we have been specifically targeted. And when I found the Social Sentinel contract, it actually confirmed a lot of the suspicions many activists had.

Keck: Have you spoken to UNC officials? what did they say?

Sen: They sent out a sort of standard PR statement. Note here that David Perry was also the Chief of Police in Florida, and he did this service as well. But what I asked them was, “Hey, have you ever detected any kind of violence with Social Sentinel?” And they couldn’t name the instance. However, the service did not identify any instances of violence or crime in UNC being prevented.

After Keck and Sen’s conversation, Chapelboro received a statement from UNC Media Relations. It fully reads:

“Universities are using Social Sentinel (now Navigate360) to identify threatening or concerning public social media posts about events and campus activities that require campus public safety. , does not use the service to monitor student emails.This resource is industry best practice and uses only publicly available information and does not collect personal personal information.The University is committed to campus safety We coordinate with and rely on the assistance of state and federal law enforcement agencies as necessary to ensure

“The university’s current contract with Navigate360 expires in October and will not be renewed.”


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