Last week, The Dallas Morning News published an in-depth investigation into how universities are using outside companies to surveil students’ social media – specifically, how UNC-Chapel Hill monitored the protests about the campus confederate monument. Their reporting found that North Carolina State, East Carolina, North Carolina A&T, UNC-Asheville, Duke and Wake Forest also used these services.

Shortly after the story, UNC-CH announced it is ending its contract with one of those companies, Social Sentinel.

Reporter Ari Sen is a 2020 UNC grad and Hendersonville native. We talked to him about the project and his experience.

The Assembly: Did this reporting start when you were still a student at UNC? What turned you on to the topic?

Ari Sen: Yes! I first came across Social Sentinel when I was an undergrad in late 2018/early 2019. 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.

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.

TA: Is Social Sentinel/Navigate360 the main or biggest player here? How large of an industry is this kind of social media surveillance?

AS: This is a really opaque industry so it’s hard to tell who the biggest player is or even how many schools have used this service. But Social Sentinel/Navigate360 Detect was certainly very popular on college campuses. We found 37 colleges that have used the service since 2015, though we think there are a lot more — an email from the company’s co-founder said there were “hundreds.”

We know that these types of tools are also really popular in the K-12 space. The current CEO of Navigate360 said the company’s services are used by one in four schools in the country. There are other services like Gaggle, GoGuardian and Securly that are prolific there as well.

TA: Tell us more about the contracts. What were you able to learn about how much schools are paying for this, and how they are publicly justifying the expense?

AS: In comparison to a university budget, these contracts were fairly small, ranging from $9,800 to $51,000 a year. From the folks I’ve talked to, the concern is not really the absolute cost, but more that this money is coming out of taxes and tuition and that it might be better spent elsewhere.

Most of the campus police chiefs I spoke with justified the service by saying they only monitored public information on social media. But the experts I talked with said even if this is just public information it could still be problematic because it could chill students’ speech. Some of the experts I spoke with also mentioned that it could be used by police to map and track activist networks to target them for more surveillance or even arrests.

TA: What were you able to learn about what campus security actually did with any of this information?

AS: The company has said over and over again that this is an AI tool that could help save lives by identifying potentially suicidal or violent students. As we will explore in our next installment, that claim is quite dubious.

But we also found that, in addition to the stated purpose of helping to prevent suicides and shootings, the service was also repeatedly marketed and used for surveilling protests. For example, at UNC they tracked Silent Sam protestors. At NC A&T, they tried to surface posts critical of the university leadership after a cheerleader said her coaches mishandled a rape complaint. At Kennesaw State in Georgia, the documents we got show that they monitored at least three demonstrations with this tool, including one at a town hall with a U.S. Senator.

It’s unclear what exactly police found for each of these protests because we don’t have the actual text of the alerts in most cases. But what we can say definitively is that there was a concerted effort to track these demonstrations by the campus police.