Seven college campuses in North Carolina secretly tracked social media posts by students and protesters

Seven college campuses in North Carolina secretly tracked social media posts by students and protesters

Invasion of privacy by a big brother or proactive policing? That’s the question after a new report found seven North Carolina universities are using or have used powerful social media monitoring programs to keep tabs on everything from campus protests to student welfare. through drugs.

WRAL Investigates has tracked the use of social media monitoring for years in schools, particularly in K-12 school systems where social media and student emails are tracked.

A new report from the Dallas Morning News, as part of the National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting (NICAR), of which WRAL is a part, sheds light on the digitization of social media on US campuses.

The report, led by Ari Sen, found that seven North Carolina universities have used social media tracking in recent years. Schools include North Carolina State University, University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, Eastern Carolina University, North Carolina A&T University, University of North Carolina Asheville, Duke University and Wake Forest University.

Thousands of public records show that schools at one time contracted with Social Sentinel to monitor posts on multiple social media platforms.

Emails and documents reviewed by WRAL Investigates show that UNC-Chapel Hill leaders used Social Sentinel during protests and the eventual destruction of the Silent Sam Confederate monument on campus. An email from the company alerted the school to an increase in social media posts around campus involving the statue.

WRAL Investigates contacted UNC-Chapel Hill regarding the use of Social Sentinel. The university sent the following statement:

“The University uses Social Sentinel to identify threatening or concerning public posts on social media surrounding campus events and activities that require campus public safety. The University does not use the service to monitor student emails. The resource is industry best practice, uses only publicly available information, and does not collect private personal information.The University coordinates and relies on the assistance of state law enforcement agencies and of the federal government, if necessary, in order to ensure the security of the campus.

WRAL Investigates also contacted NC State University. The university acknowledged using the service for three years during the tenure of former campus police chief Jack Moorman. A spokesperson also added:

“The product was used to identify possible threats to the university or a university-sponsored group/event through social media monitoring. The product was not used to target individuals or groups for application purposes.The product could not be used to access information that was not publicly available.

Sen told WRAL Investigates how he got involved.

“I got interested in Social Sentinel when I was a student at UNC, actually,” Sen told WRAL Investigates. “So the Silent Sam protests were happening all around me.

“And, I decided to start putting in place FOIAs (Freedom of Information Act) about what was going on with Silent Sam. And, I started to retrieve documents. And, in those documents, I since UNC had a contract with this company called Sentinelle Sociale.”

North Carolina Rep. Craig Meyer of D-Orange County said the contract language is disturbing.

“It’s nonsense,” Meyer said. “Universities are using technology to spy on their own students to quell protests?”

Meyer also questions whether the use of Social Sentinel was well thought out: “When you don’t have a solid policy that regulates how technology intrudes on privacy, you’re going to have things that intrude. in a way that is threatening or harmful to people.”

UNC-Chapel Hill also requested the assistance of state law enforcement to create a geofence around campus leading to a planned anti-abortion rally on campus. It was feared tempers would flare if pro-life groups, both academic and national organizations like Planned Parenthood, showed up. The North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation helped set up geofencing to monitor online activity using a long list of keywords to flag posts that might indicate trouble.

Public records also show that North Carolina State University used the Social Sentinel from 2015 to 2018. Moorman led the effort after meeting with a Social Sentinel representative in Atlantic City, New Jersey.

Prior to signing a contract with Social Sentinel, Moorman asked about the service’s capabilities, specifically categorizing the results so it could send messages about drug use or distribution to detectives on campus, while messaging students about suicide or mental health to the appropriate counselors on campus.

The emails also show that Moorman asked Social Sentinel representatives to expand their search capabilities to new social media platforms that were not currently under review. The post also shows that Moorman has spread the word about the Social Sentry to other police chiefs in the university system.

“It seems intrusive. I’m really concerned about privacy,” NC State official Banks Peete told WRAL Investigates.

However, despite feeling intrusive, Peete understands to a certain extent.

“I guess if someone’s social media is public, what’s wrong with admins looking at it?” Pette said. “I don’t think they should do it at our expense.”

Bridgette Pullium, a freshman at NC State, said she wasn’t as worried.

“In the world we live in today with technology and all that, it’s pretty easy for people to access all of this information, even on social media platforms,” ​​Pullium said. “So for the college to have access to that, I don’t really see a problem with that.”

Sen wonders about the risks versus the benefits of using the system.

“I mean, it’s really the central tension of this story, it’s this service, which is going to invade students’ privacy and potentially chill their rights of expression, is it worth it?” says Sen. “For, you know, the potential safety benefits in preventing suicides and shootings?”

The company has a database of words it constantly searches, whether it’s known student accounts or content generated from on-campus computers or phones. Much of North Carolina A&T’s public records included more than 1,000 daily alerts sent to a campus employee. Each alert contained a link to several reported social media posts. Follow-up emails revealed two instances where a student was struggling with mental health issues. Police and campus counselors were alerted to find the student to get him the help he needed.

Social Sentinel has the ability to analyze student email accounts, but public records observed by WRAL Investigates found no evidence that schools in our state participated in this service. The Dallas Morning News’ national report also found no sign of the schools’ email scanning. in several states.

WRAL Investigates first interviewed Social Sentinel founder Gary Margolis in 2019 about the use of his company by public schools. He minimized the intrusion into student privacy to detect threats.

“The moment something tragic happens, however you want to define tragic, there are often bread crumbs along the way,” Margolis said in 2019. “If we can help identify some of those breadcrumbs long before they degenerate into whatever this event turns out to be, so that’s our mission.”

Meyer hopes universities don’t just care about security. If not, he tells WRAL Investigates that state lawmakers may need to get involved.

“It raises a lot of questions that are not only legal but also moral and ethical that leaders need to think about and if the universities haven’t thought about that then maybe we need to think about that at the General Assembly. “, said Meyer. said.

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