Surveillance

University of Virginia Hires 'Social Sentinel' to Monitor Students' Social Media Posts

"They are being watched, and that's a problem."

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Marcel De Grijs | Dreamstime.com

In response to the torch-lit marches in Charlottesville last August, the University of Virginia signed an $18,500 annual contract with Social Sentinel, a private security firm, to monitor the social media accounts of its students and others.

UVA began working with Social Sentinel in September to keep an eye on potentially dangerous campus activity. University officials and the UVA police force have assured the community this step is necessary for campus security, yet students and others are concerned about their privacy rights.

"Enhanced technology is just one piece of the University's safety and preparedness efforts," Officer Ben Rexrode, the Crime Prevention Coordinator for the University Of Virginia Police Department, told Reason via email. "As the University grows and new standards for best in class operations evolve, we take steps to improve when prudent and appropriate."

Using an algorithm, Social Sentinel scans social media accounts and targets threatening words, images and phrases included in Sentinel's "library of harm." When these terms or images are used in context with the university's name, location, or events, a report is sent to the police, who determine if the content merits further investigation.

While officials consider the context of posts that are flagged, algorithms may fail to distinguish between dangerous phrases and phrases like "You're the bomb!" or "Nice shot!," leading to unnecessary tagging. It's also difficult to expect someone who is so far removed from a conversation to fully grasp what a student meant by a particular choice of words. Neither the algorithm nor the officers reading the material may understand what is said.

"It's not so much that they're looking at your Twitter or your Instagram, it's casting a very wide net and getting metadata and producing a report," UVA Spokesperson Anthony de Bruyn told The Cavalier Daily.

Yet once a report is drawn up about a particular post, officers are able to read and view students posts, be they on Twitter or Instagram. So while Big Brother is not actively scrolling through students' feeds, officers have records of conversations that students or other persons may have preferred to keep from the government. Social Sentinel told The Daily Progress it does not archive the data it scans, but university police officials said the department would record and store any alerts that prompted police action.

"The University has not confined the scanning to any particular group," said Rexrode."The service can only view publicly viewable sources; it cannot see private or direct messages, or accounts set to private. The service merely aggregates publicly available information."

This betrays a serious limitation: Persons who wish to do harm often plot and exchange information in private chat groups, via text message, or in other online forms that wouldn't be accessed by this technology.

UVA officials say Social Sentinel's mass data collection has allowed authorities to prevent some campus events, including instances of self-harm, but Social Sentinel is scanning everyone's data in order to do so. This raises obvious concerns for civil libertarians.

"We see a trend in law enforcement in general to want to employ new technology before we really understand all of the implications of that technology," Bill Farrar, the Director of Strategic Communications for ACLU of Virginia, told Reason. "While we don't object to use of technology in law enforcement, we do object to usage policies and practices that violate people's expectation of privacy and other civil liberties. We are opposed to any sort of mass government surveillance for any future law enforcement services.

"Law enforcement is essentially grabbing everyone's data and holding on it, just in case they might need it for some future unspecified purpose," said Farrar. "We don't think that's right—and it's not just students' data that's being monitored, it's anyone on that campus who posts on social media. They are being watched, and that's a problem."

If services like Social Sentinel cause students to feel they are being watched or targeted online, how will it affect campus dialogue? Universities should be places where everyone feels like they can speak freely—the presence of a ubiquitous social media monitoring service might chill speech.

And then there's the potential for abuse. For instance, late last year, Georgia Tech came under fire for targeting a student activist, Matthew Wolfsen, when it was revealed that the university had binders full of information on him, including several pages of his public social media posts.

It's difficult to determine where such monitoring could lead when its implemented in a university setting. UVA appears to have made trade-off on behalf of its student body and the public, trading their privacy for some degree of security that has yet to be determined. And trading students' privacy for an increased feeling of security seems like a dubious undertaking.

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53 responses to “University of Virginia Hires 'Social Sentinel' to Monitor Students' Social Media Posts

  1. But what if someone calls a xe a xer? That’s like the holocaust! Are you just going to let the holocaust happen again?

    1. Then they flunk English.

      (if the real world exists on campus anymore)

      1. Technically it does, but anyone who acknowledges the real world will presumably be penalized.

        1. Yup, IRL is the hallmark of violent thugs and pedophiles.

      2. the Real World only exists on MTV.

  2. “UVA began working with Social Sentinel in September to keep an eye on potentially dangerous campus activity”

    So far, the most actually dangerous campus activity is allowing the administration to go to work each day.

  3. I have a hard time feeling sympathy for people who barf every opinion in their head onto the internet for the world to see and then go “O NOEZ MUH PRIVUSEE!” if someone writes a program to monitor the blather the speaker has intentionally made public.

    1. If that someone is the government, that is a problem you nit wit. UVA is a state run school. They have no right to restrict their student’s speech absent a compelling reason to do so and a narrowly tailored means of accomplishing it. There is no way UVA can claim a compelling reason to monitor it’s students’ speech outside of the classroom.

      It is a free country. If you don’t like that, tough shit, many of us do.

      1. There is no way UVA can claim a compelling reason to monitor it’s students’ speech outside of the classroom.

        Silly John, you’re probably adhering to some fundamental(ist), arcane, and patriarchal concepts of jurisprudence and rule of law. If someone’s guilty until you prove they need to be kicked off campus or put in a cell then monitoring their speech for a while before you do it is nbd. If you start off with the assumption that people are innocent and that speech isn’t intrinsically a crime then, yeah, you’d have a problem with the state, compelling interests, and the like. Since boys and girls chatting over beer may constitute a crime, you have to monitor that shit.

      2. Observing, and even recording, what people shout in public is not restricting anyone’s speech, nit wit.

        1. Observing, and even recording, what people shout in public is not restricting anyone’s speech, nit wit.

          When the shouting is done on a platform you don’t control and you’ve got police and campus security at either shoulder, it’s certainly somewhere between chilling, misappropriation, and breach of contract/public trust.

          1. Maybe. FWIW, I disagree with the NSA-esque dragnet tactic of ‘observe everything possible and use a computer program to tell us what to look closely at,’ but that still doesn’t make me sympathetic to people who make every thought in their brain public and then wail that their privacy is being invaded.

            1. Yeah, there are two angles to this. 1. It’s creepy that the University is watching their students’ (how they identify students is a bit of a mystery to me) posts and then ‘acting upon it’.

              2. You can’t tell someone (or tailored groups of people) to not look at messages on the internet that were explicitly designed to be seen by everyone.

          2. Assume Preet Brahara is watching this forum, then act accordingly.

            1. *angry woodchipper sounds*

        2. Actually recording a conversation without consent may be against the law depending on your state, but that’s more of an in person or over the phone type thing most of the time. I guess it doesn’t apply to writing because fuck you, that’s why.

          1. And I think Reason has run articles opining that two person consent laws are ridiculous because there’s no reasonable expectation of privacy in a public place.

        3. When it is the state doing it, it is. what is the purpose of doing this other than to punish speech the school doesn’t like/

      3. John, are people who video themselves burgling homes and then post the video to Facebook able to successfully cite the 4th Amendment if the cops submit a publicly posted video of a crime in action as evidence without having first gotten a warrant to look at a video the perpetrators themselves made public?

        1. No

      4. I’m not sure what your argument is here, John. You pivot to a group of people actively viewing posts which were explicitly made publicly and set to unrestricted, then pivoting to the university restricting the speech of their students.

        No, they don’t have the right to do the latter, but unfortunately, you can’t stop them from doing the former.

        1. Yes you can. it is called chilling effect. What is the purpose of monitoring this speech? There is no legitimate purpose as far as I can see. But doing so has an enormous chilling effect on what people say. there is no way this passes strict scrutiny.

          1. But doing so has an enormous chilling effect on what people say.

            If only this were true. People endlessly spout their useless blather regardless of who’s watching.

        2. “”You pivot to a group of people actively viewing posts which were explicitly made publicly and set to unrestricted, “”

          Actually, what you post on FB isn’t really public in the public area sense. You do have some control over who sees your posts, friends, or friends of friends for example. So I would be curious how they actually plan to monitor. The idea of using a service to scan all of Facebook to look for keywords including the school name sounds like it could be a violation of FB privacy policy.

          1. How do they actually plan to monitor? They’ll ask Zuckerberg if it’s OK, he’ll say “sure”, and Bob’s your uncle.

    2. The clear intent of the snowflake generations (Gen-X and the Milennials), given their propensity to broadcast their lives over social media, is to normalize the end of privacy out of the rank fear that somewhere, something bad is happening that needs to be stopped or ended before it begins.

      We’ve already come to accept that our government is spying on us constantly, so it’s not a stretch that the next logical step would be to eliminate privacy entirely as a matter of course. Tech companies in particular are quite blatant about their disrespect for the concept, because their entire business models hinge on their ability to data-mine everything about you in order to further exploit you financially and politically.

  4. It’s difficult to determine where such monitoring could lead when its implemented in a university setting.

    Don’t think about it too hard.

  5. On the plus side, the entire city of Charlottesville can now get free power simply by hooking up a dynamo to the rapidly spinning corpse of Thomas Jefferson.

  6. “We don’t think that’s right?and it’s not just students’ data that’s being monitored, it’s anyone on that campus who posts on social media. They are being watched, and that’s a problem.”

    Farrar might’ve made some good points, but absolutely nobody at U.Va. is going to listen to him if he’s going to call it “campus” instead of “Grounds.”

  7. It will be interesting to see how they respond when, sooner or later, you have students who simply don’t go on social media. If a person never sends a “tweet” will that automatically be regarded as suspicious?

    1. No no… You’re thinking about it all wrong. If nobody tweets, they’ll say “See! No threatening tweets. It’s working!”

      You need to at this from the other side, and get everyone to be “disruptive” For example:

      We’re shooting down at @UVA #SmithDorms. Really killing ’em! Check out these guns! [photo of athletic young man, holding basketball and flexing biceps]

      A few dozen of those every day, overwhelming the system (and annoying the police) is more likely to get it tossed out as a waste of money.

  8. You know what I consider a cause for concern? People’s need to share every ridiculous event in their lives with everyone on the Internet. Anyone who shares their life with the world willingly is not really interested in privacy at all.

    1. I believe that is the essence of Facebook. I have a deactivated account, because once in a very blue moon I have to log in to communicate with someone or because my employer’s version of “social sentinel” picks up something about themselves and goes batshit until I can assure them it’s about nothing.

    2. So a country where the government monitors everything people do in public is not a problem, just so long as the government doesn’t punish them? Hey, you are doing it in public right? By your logic, why shouldn’t the government install cameras that monitor what is said and done in every public place and forum?

      1. Police shouldn’t even go out in public without blindfolds on and earplugs in. If something happens where you need a police officer, you should have to go to a station and ask one of them to come out, but first they’d have to get a specific warrant pursuant to that citizen’s problem. We don’t want the cops arresting people just because they happened to hear a woman shout for help and see a man with a purse running away from her.

      2. So a country where the government monitors everything people do in public is not a problem, just so long as the government doesn’t punish them?

        It’s dumb, but that’s what public is. I’m sorry you don’t like that.

        By your logic, why shouldn’t the government install cameras that monitor what is said and done in every public place and forum?

        Why don’t they? What makes you think they don’t? Do you know what public is?

      3. So a country where the government monitors everything people do in public is not a problem, just so long as the government doesn’t punish them?

        It is a problem and you’re being monitored right now. The REAL problem is the government is monitoring your explicitly secret, or PRIVATE conversations. I assume that anything I put on Facebook as a public post is being watched by everyone. Because I made it available to everyone by intent.

        I have no agreement with UVA on the reasons for their monitoring, but there is absolutely nothing stopping an employee of UVA, or a subcontractor from reading your explicitly-public facebook posts, just as there’s nothing stopping Preet Brahara from reading all of the comments on this thread.

  9. “It’s not so much that they’re looking at your Twitter or your Instagram, it’s casting a very wide net and getting metadata and producing a report,” UVA Spokesperson Anthony de Bruyn told The Cavalier Daily.

    When I first read this quote I initially thought someone was complaining or whistle blowing, but then I realized that they were actually bragging.

    1. And what do you think the government does with all the metadata it’s got 3 or 4 yrs from now one of is going to have to account of our movements because we sat in the same dunkin’ donut for a week of breakfasts with a bomber who also like donuts & coffee.


  10. When these terms or images are used in context with the university’s name, location, or events, a report is sent to the police, who determine if the content merits further investigation.

    So, rather like the ’emergency call’ function that’s always accessible from your cellphone the over reporting of these applications will be ignored because virtually all of them will be completely and utterly benign.

    Of course, there are no civil rights issues present here because it’s totally cool for a University to forward everyone’s 3rd party posts straight to the cops.

    Disgusting, but this is the blueprint that will inevitably be used nationwide. Law enforcement has a hard on for pre-crime, but they can’t figure out how to see the future so they’ll just punish you if maybe they think you were going to do something. No problem, right?

    1. So much for the old saw that “you can’t jail a man for what he’s thinking”. Now our government can not only do that, but jail a man for what government thinks he’s thinking. Some call that progress.

  11. http://www.fox32chicago.com/ne…..ebook-live

    These people should never have been charged, because the cops had no right to look at a Facebook Live video posted by the perpetrators.

    /John

    1. Don’t facebook your felonies.

  12. I think it’s only a matter of a handful of years before the Western University System will collapse under the weight of its own bullshit. Doubling down is exponential, and academia has been doubling down on stupid for decades. It can’t last much longer. Universities have become so isolated and insular that they will soon become unmoored from reality and drift off into a black hole, never to seen again.

    I won’t shed a tear when it happens.

  13. Oh, for cryin’ out loud. UVA enrollment is 23,000, that is 80 cents per student. I know eyewash when I see it.

  14. This is ironic, because Facebook became big by requiring people to have Ivy League email accounts to sign up. Then they allowed new users with any college email to sign up. Then they allowed anyone with an email to sign up.

    Progressives are eating their own. If this trend continues, only people without college degrees but with the emotional sensitivities of college graduates will have Facebook accounts.

  15. I see a market for a new brand of universities.

    Hey parents, Bergen University is the best. We don’t stalk your children.

    1. That would be an ad for students no their parents.

  16. “So while Big Brother is not actively scrolling through students’ feeds, officers have records of conversations that students or other persons may have preferred to keep from the government. ”

    I would suggest that if you want to keep your conversations from government ears, you don’t have them over the internet. Just sayin’…

  17. Wahoo-what? I cannot imagine how anyone thinks that a university providing all students’ names to a security firm to track their social media and automatically report to the police any comments troubling to an algorithm is ok. Indeed, why would you have the slightest interest in Reason if you didn’t find this repugnant? I thought this was a dystopian joke when I first read it. My biggest fear is growing complacency with this kind of shit. Why aren’t students and faculty at the U preparing to go on strike?

    1. Fear. They like Big Brother. He keeps them safe from the boogeymen and hobgoblins.

  18. I recall a bank’s compliance department used a service that scanned emails for concerning phrases, like “front running”, “money laundering” and the like. Employees eventually figured out how to troll the system for fun, sending emails like “I’m out front running past the building”, or “I spent a lot of money laundering my suit yesterday.” It was the bomb. Hopefully the UVa students figure this out too and blow up the system.

  19. Yet another reason for anyone to use secure encryption for personal messaging and a better reason NOT to use impromptu systems like Twitter, instagram, facebook etc. Sooner or later the younger generations will figure that out!

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