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Seven North Carolina college campuses have secretly tracked social media posts of students, protesters

Posted September 20, 2022 4:56 p.m. EDT
Updated October 27, 2022 8:06 p.m. EDT

Big brother invasion of privacy or pro-active policing? That’s the question after a new report revealed seven North Carolina universities use or have used powerful social media-monitoring programs to keep an eye on everything from campus protests to student well-being to drugs.

WRAL Investigates has tracked the use of social media monitoring for years in schools, especially 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 participant, shines the light on social media scanning on America’s campuses.

The reporting, spearheaded by Ari Sen, found seven universities in North Carolina have used social media tracking in recent years. The schools include North Carolina State University, the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, East Carolina University, North Carolina A&T University, the University of North Carolina Asheville, Duke University and Wake Forest University.

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

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

WRAL Investigates reached out to UNC-Chapel Hill about the use of Social Sentinel. The university sent the following statement:

“The University uses Social Sentinel to identify threatening or concerning public social media posts surrounding events and campus activities that require campus public safety. The University does not use 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.”

WRAL Investigates also contacted NC State University. The university acknowledged using the service for three years during former campus Police Chief Jack Moorman’s tenure. 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 enforcement. The product could not be used to access information that wasn’t publicly available.”

Sen told WRAL Investigates how he got involved.

"I got interested in Social Sentinel when I was an undergrad at UNC, actually," Sen told WRAL Investigates. "So, the Silent Sam protests were happening all around me.

"And, I decided to start putting in some FOIAs (Freedom of Information Act) about what was happening with Silent Sam. And, I started to get documents back. And, in those documents, I saw that UNC had a contract with this company called Social Sentinel."

North Carolina Rep. Graig Meyer, D-Orange County, said the wording of the contract is disturbing.

"This is absurd," Meyer said. "Universities are using technology to spy on their own students in order to quash protests?"

Meyer also questions whether the use of Social Sentinel was well thought-out, "When you don’t have solid policy that regulates the way that technology intrudes on private lives than 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 up to an anti-abortion rally planned on campus. There was concern tempers could flare if pro-life groups, both campus-based and national organizatons like Planned Parenthood, showed up. The North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation assisted in setting up the geofence to monitor online activity using a long list of keywords to flag posts that may point to trouble.

The public records also show North Carolina State University used the Social Sentinel from 2015-2018. Moorman spearheaded the effort after meeting a representative from Social Sentinel in Atlantic City, New Jersey.

Before signing a contract with Social Sentinel, Moorman asked about the service’s capabilities, specifically categorizing results so he could send posts about drug use or distribution to campus detectives, while sending student posts about suicide or mental health to appropriate counselors on campus.

Emails also show Moorman asked Social Sentinel representatives about expanding their search capabilities to new social media platforms that weren’t currently examined. Message also show Moorman spread the word about the Social Sentinel to other university system police chiefs.

"It does feel intrusive. I’m definitely concerned about privacy," NC State senior Banks Peete told WRAL Investigates.

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

"I suppose if someone’s social media is public than what’s wrong with administrators looking at it? Peete said. "I don’t think they should do it on our dime."

NC State freshman Bridgette Pullium said she isn’t as concerned.

"In the world we live in today with technology and all that stuff, it’s kind of easy for people to get access to all that 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 it."

Sen questions the risks versus benefits of using the system.

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

The company has a database of words it searches for on a constant basis, whether it’s from known student accounts or content generated from computers or phones on campus. One large section of the public records from North Carolina A&T included more than 1,000 daily alerts that were sent to a campus employee. Each alert contained a link with multiple flagged social media posts. Follow-up emails revealed two instances where a student was dealing with mental-health issues. Campus police and counselors were alerted to find the student to provide him/her the help they need.

Social Sentinel does have the capability to scan student email accounts, but the public records observed by WRAL Investigates found no evidence schools in our state took part in that service.The national report by the Dallas Morning News also found no signs of email scanning by schools in multiple states.

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

"By the time something tragic happens, however you want to define tragic, there are often breadcrumbs along the way," Margolis said in 2019. "If we can help identify some of those breadcrumbs long before it escalates to whatever that event turns out to be, then that’s our mission."

Meyer hopes universities are concerned about more than just safety. If not, he tells WRAL Investigates that state lawmakers may have to get involved.

"This raises a lot of issues that are not just legal, but are moral and ethical and that leaders need to think about and if universities haven’t thought about this, than maybe we need to think about it at the General Assembly," Meyer said.

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