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




Big Brother Privacy Violation or Proactive Police? That is the question after a new report revealed that seven North Carolina universities are using or have used powerful social media monitoring software to monitor everything from campus protests to student welfare to drugs.

WRAL Investigates has tracked the use of social media monitoring for years in schools, particularly 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-Aided Reporting (NICAR), in which WRAL is involved, highlights the social media survey on US college campuses.

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

Thousands of public records show that schools simultaneously contracted with Social Sentinel to monitor posts on several social media platforms.

Emails and documents reviewed by WRAL Investigates show that UNC-Chapel Hill leaders used the Social Sentinel during protests and tore down the Confederate Silent Sam monument on campus. One email from the company alerted the school to a slight increase in social media posts around campus that include the statue.

WRAL Investigates has 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 threats to or relating to public social media posts surrounding events and campus activities that require public safety on campus. The University does not use the Service to monitor student email. The resource is an industry best practice, uses only public information and does not collect information Private character. The university coordinates with and relies on state and federal law enforcement agencies where appropriate in order to ensure the safety of the campus.”

WRAL Investigates has also contacted North Carolina State University. The university acknowledged using the service for three years during the tenure of former Campus Police Chief Jack Moorman. The speaker also added:

“The product was used to identify potential threats to a 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 was not publicly available.”

Sen told WRAL to investigate how he was involved.

“I became interested in Social Sentinel when I was an undergraduate at UNC,” Sen told WRAL Investigates, “So the Silent Sam protests were happening all around me.

“And I decided to start putting in some FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) about what was going on with Silent Sam. And I started recovering the documents. And in those documents, I saw that UNC had a contract with this company called Social Sentinel.”

North Carolina Representative Greg Meyer of Orange County said the wording of the contract is worrisome.

“That’s ridiculous,” Meyer said. “Universities are using technology to spy on their students in order to quell protests?”

Mayer also wonders if the use of Social Sentinel is so well-thought-out, “when you don’t have a strong policy that regulates the way technology intrudes on private life than when you have things intrusive in a way that is threatening or harmful to people.”

UNC-Chapel Hill also requested state law enforcement help to create a geofence around the campus leading to a planned anti-abortion march on campus. There was concern that outrage could erupt if pro-life groups emerged, both on campus and national organizations such as Planned Parenthood. The North Carolina Bureau of Investigation helped create a geofence to monitor online activity by using a long list of keywords to identify posts that might indicate a problem.


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

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

The emails also show that Moorman asked Social Sentinel representatives about expanding their search capabilities to new social media platforms that are not currently vetted. The letter also shows that Moorman is spreading the word about the social guard to other university system police chiefs.

“It feels intrusive. I’m definitely concerned about privacy,” Petty, North Carolina’s chief banker, told WRAL Investigates.

However, despite feeling intrusive, Betty somewhat understands.

“I think if someone’s social media is public, what’s wrong with officials looking at it? I don’t think they should do that on our dime,” Pete said.

North Carolina State student Bridget Bullium said she’s not worried.

“In the world that we live in today with technology and all of these things, it is very easy for people to access all that information even on social media platforms,” Polium said. “So, for the college to have access to that, I don’t see a problem with that.”

Sen questions the risks of using the system versus its benefits.

“I mean, the central tension of this story is this service, which will invade the privacy of students, and possibly eliminate their rights to speak, is it worth it?” Sen said. “You know, the potential safety benefits in preventing suicide and shootings?”

The company has a database of words you’re constantly searching for, whether it’s from well-known student accounts or content generated from computers or phones on campus. One large section of North Carolina A&T’s public records included more than 1,000 daily alerts sent to an employee on campus. Each alert contained a link with several social media posts that had been tagged. Follow-up emails revealed two cases where the student was dealing with mental health issues. Campus Police and Counselors have been alerted to find the student to provide him/her with the assistance they need.

Social Sentinel has the ability to check students’ email accounts, but public records noted by WRAL Investigates have found no evidence that schools in our state participate in this service. in multiple countries.

WRAL Investigates first interviewed Social Sentinel founder Gary Margolis in 2019 about the use of his company by public schools. Minimize intrusion on students’ 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. Be, that’s our job.”

Mayer hopes that universities will care about more than just safety. If not, he told WRAL which investigations state lawmakers may have to participate in.

“This raises a lot of issues that are not just legal, but ethical and ethical and leaders have to think about, and if universities don’t think about this, maybe we need to think about it in the General Assembly,” Mayer said.


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