Journalist names VCU as one of 37 colleges to virtually monitor students

VCU police entered into a contract with Social Sentinel, a social scanning tool, in November 2015. Photo by Kaitlyn Fulmore

Sarah Hagen, Contributing Writer 

Andrew Kerley, Contributing Writer

Jack Glagola, Contributing Writer

A journalist listed VCU as one of 37 colleges to purchase and use Social Sentinel, a service he said was used for monitoring student protests. 

VCU Police admitted to using the tool, according to university spokesperson Corey Byers. University police entered into a contract with Social Sentinel in November 2015 and ended it in August 2017. It paid $9,999 its first year and $15,000 its second year, but did not use it again once VCU Police discontinued their service in 2017.

“VCU Police only used Social Sentinel to find publicly accessible information related to potential threats to security, public safety, harm, self-harm or acts of violence that were posted on publicly accessible accounts, which were on Internet-based, social media platforms,” Byers stated in an email. 

VCU Police did not use Social Sentinel to monitor student protests, only to monitor “public social media feeds for threats in and around VCU,” Byers stated. The university did not use any information that wasn’t readily and publicly accessible to anybody on the internet, so it is within student privacy laws for VCU Police to use this tech, according to Byers. 

Social Sentinel, which had its name changed to Direct earlier this year, is a service that Navigate360 offers, a technology company that provides various safety services. Its original purpose is to allow its users to scan information on the internet, using artificial intelligence to seek out harmful content or possible violence before it has the chance to escalate, according to their website

Arijit Sen, a computational journalist for the Dallas Morning News, was the first to expose the practice of universities using the technology to surveil student protests in an article published on Sept. 20. He mentioned VCU in a twitter thread on Sept. 21.

Sen said he first discovered the service while attending the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill campus. Protests had broken out over a statue on campus depicting the confederate soldier Silent Sam. 

“There were a lot of protests over the statue going on in 2017 and 2018,” Sen said. “There was a very large police response, so I wanted to know what was going on behind the scenes, what the police and administrators were saying.”

Sen filed a public records request with UNC Police but was denied, he said. There were many record requests by others, because of the topic, Sen said. Using UNC’s open portal, he requested the information previously requested by others. He received thousands of pages of legal documents months later, and within them, records of UNC using Social Sentinel. 

“It led me down this rabbit hole of, ‘if UNC is using Social Sentinel to surveil protests, I bet a bunch of other colleges are as well,’” Sen said.

Sen said he continued to accumulate data via public record requests until 2022. 

“Navigate360 is very opaque about how the service works,” Sen said. “They have machine learning models that scan social media, websites and potentially emails for a language of harm, which I think is just a list of keywords like, ‘shoot,’ ‘bomb’ or ‘kill.’ They find tweets that have those words and send them to college police departments. This is the general theory behind it.”

Navigate360 states Social Sentinel is only used to cover violent riots “upon their client’s request” but is not used to monitor peaceful protests, according to its website. Only one school investigated by Sen directly stated to him that they were using it for such purposes.

A marketer working with Navigate360 touted the service to a UNC administrator as a way of mitigating the impacts of “disruptive demonstrations & protests,” according to the Dallas Morning News.

There was no informed consent with students at these universities to use this Social Sentinel, Sen said. 

“When you sign up for Facebook, for example, there’s a terms of service, though most people don’t read it. Right? The students are not signing a terms of service with Navigate360, the school is,” Sen said. “When schools bought the service, they either did not say anything at all, or, in a couple of cases, journalists heard about it.” 

Many college police departments have been using taxpayer dollars to pay for Social Sentinel’s services to monitor what students say, according to the Dallas Morning News.

“The Fourth Amendment has considered things like spying. That is clearly an invasion of privacy,” Sen said. “Looking at one person’s tweet is not an invasion of privacy, but when you start to aggregate millions of people’s tweets that might be a potential concern. You can track superhuman levels of tweets and use them for purposes like tracking activist networks.”

The Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution protects people’s right to privacy and protects them from unreasonable intrusions by the government. 

“It is chilling to think that universities might have a power imbalance between them and their students,” Sen said. “Even though a lot of schools have canceled their usage of the service, if they were willing to do this once, I would not be surprised if they were willing to do it again.”

Communications law professor William Oglesby said students do not give up their free speech rights by being a student at a university. 

“As for minors, courts have made it clear that while they maintain their First Amendment rights, they are more limited. Minors at the college level, however, have all the First Amendment rights that anybody else does,” Oglesby said.

The official VCU Student Email Standard states that the university uses “various methods” to protect the security of its network and of its users’ accounts. Any data utilizing university-owned computer or network resources has the potential to be disclosed under the law or appropriate university business needs. 

“It is important that students keep in mind that whatever they say online can be misinterpreted, like using particularly strong language or flaggable words” Oglesby said. “AI monitors do not have a sense of humor.”

Navigate360’s website states one in 20,000 scans are truly actionable, captioned with the question, “if you could prevent someone from harming themselves or others would you?”

“It’s so important that universities have policies and direction as to what they will do in cases of students in suicidal danger,” Oglesby said. 

Suicide is the third leading clause of death for young people from ages 10 to 24, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

“People who are at risk of suicide will let it be known in one way or another, that they’re contemplating suicide,” Oglesby said. “We may not always recognize it at first, but they will often do that. If they carry it out, people will say, ‘why didn’t we hear these cries for help?” That can happen so easily in college. It is a question of ‘how do you do that, and at the same time, protect their privacy rights?’”

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