A recently published years-long investigation by the Dallas Morning News has revealed that many colleges and universities throughout the country used or have been using AI to monitor students’ social media and email accounts.
The investigation by DMN, in conjunction with the Investigative Reporting Program at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, revealed that many colleges and universities utilize an AI technology company called Social Sentinel to monitor students’ speech in social media forums and in some cases, their email accounts. According to the report, at least 37 colleges have used Social Sentinel over the past 7 years.
Social Sentinel was founded in 2011. The technology was acquired in 2020 by Navigate360, LLC, a private company headquartered in Ohio.
“I first came across Social Sentinel when I was an undergrad at UNC Chapel Hill,” Ari Sen, the lead reporter on the investigation for DMN, told Carolina Journal. “There were some protests over a Confederate statue called Silent Sam going on on-campus and I wanted to know what the police were saying behind the scenes, so I put in a records request and was denied. So, in true journalist fashion, my next step was to request everything everyone else had asked for on the statue protests, which ended up being thousands of pages. Buried inside those pages was a contract for Social Sentinel.”
He continued, “After writing a story about UNC using the service in late 2019, I started to wonder — if UNC is using this service to monitor protestors, are other colleges doing the same thing? That started me down the rabbit hole of this investigation.”
Seven colleges in North Carolina were implicated among the schools found to have either used or considered use of Social Sentinel’s services.
The report detailed in a cache of emails and other correspondence found that Social Sentinel was used or considered for use by campus police authorities and university officials to monitor or consider monitoring many protest activities, including the removal of the Confederate Silent Sam statue at UNC-Chapel Hill and a protest at a town hall with a U.S. Senator at Kennesaw State University.
Mixed signals had been sent between Social Sentinel’s corporate leadership and its public relations apparatus. According to DMN’s report, while co-founder Gary Margolis had repeatedly said in public statements that it was not possible for the service to be used to spy on individual people, emails to prospective clients detailed how usernames, user accounts, and other information could be used to monitor student activities.
August 2015 correspondence uploaded to and detailed in the report shows how former North Carolina State University Police Chief Jack Moorman acknowledged the program’s ability to upload usernames and user accounts to follow known threats.
Carolina Journal reached out to N.C. State but did not receive comment.
Another AI technology tool utilized by Social Sentinel was the Local+ List, which was used by law enforcement to track hashtags and keywords or phrases.
The DMN report also detailed communications which revealed that UNC-Chapel Hill’s police department requested the State Bureau of Investigations monitor pro and anti-abortion protesters in October 2015 with the service.
UNC Chapel Hill told CJ that the university is still using the technology but has not been using it to monitor private information.
“The University uses Social Sentinel (now Navigate360) to identify threatening or concerning public social media posts surrounding events and campus activities that require campus public safety,” the school told CJ. “The University does not and has not used the service to monitor student email. The resource is an industry best practice, only uses public information and does not collect private personal information. The University coordinates with and relies on assistance from state and federal law enforcement agencies when appropriate in order to ensure campus safety. The University’s current contract with Navigate360 ends in October and the contract will not be renewed.”
UNC Charlotte also entertained the idea of purchasing the service according to the report. Emails uploaded to report between a Social Sentinel representative and a UNC Charlotte official named Christine Davis from 2017 describe how the service could be used for forestalling potentially volatile protests through proactive monitoring. According to DMN, Davis did not follow up with the representative and the university did not seek a service to monitor protests.
Social Sentinel again reached out to the university to offer their services in 2019 with a contract that provided features to monitor student’s private email accounts. The senior buyer responsible for handling the potential contract at the time was Judy Stanwyck, who, according to documents obtained in the DMN report, sought clarity from a co-worker on what exactly that provision in the contract entailed. Stanwyck did not respond to a CJ request for comment on Social Sentinel or the report.
Buffie Stephens, director of issues management and media relations at UNC Charlotte told CJ that the University did not enter into a contract.
“Social Sentinel reached out to multiple offices at UNC Charlotte in efforts to promote their product. The University reviewed the product and did not purchase or enter into a contract with Social Sentinel,” she said.
As for Sen, he believes there are three main takeaways from this investigation.
“The first is that this technology is really widespread on college campuses,” he said. “We were able to find 37 colleges that have used this tool, but an email from the company’s founder suggests that there may have been ‘hundreds.’ All types of universities seemed to have used this service — from small community colleges to large state schools to the country’s most elite private campuses. The second is that the company told the public one thing and school officials another. To the general public, they said Social Sentinel was not a surveillance or monitoring tool and couldn’t be used to track protests. But in emails to schools, they repeatedly touted its ability to ‘mitigate’ and ‘forestall’ protests and even produced a whitepaper on how it could be used in demonstrations. The final takeaway is that schools definitely used this tool to monitor demonstrations. We found evidence that campus police at UNC, NC A&T, Kennesaw State and many more campuses used this tool for surveilling protestors. I think for a lot of people that raises a lot of questions about what their taxpayer and tuition dollars are going towards.”