The Campus Safety Commission met Wednesday morning to discuss the impending Summit on Safety and Belonging. Chief of Police David L. Perry also explained UNC Police’s controversial use of geofencing to filter social media profiles for safety threats.
The summit, organized by Chancellor Guskiewicz and the commission, will be held from 6 to 8 p.m. on Jan. 28 in room G100 of the Genome Sciences Building. Attendees will be able to hear updates about safety on campus and learn about the commission’s work.
Commission members discussed potentially changing aspects of the summit, including its location and the level of audience interaction. They held different views about Chancellor Guskiewicz’s involvement and the summit’s goal.
Law professor Eric Muller said the meeting should be about the commission’s work.
“I don’t think this is about Kevin, Kevin has made his statements about his commitment to safety,” Muller said. “What he said is ‘I’ve appointed this safety commission.’ I think this meeting is about us in terms of establishing our credibility.”
Law student Maya Weinstein said this was not the commission’s summit.
“I really feel like they created this mostly, and it’s not us giving feedback and listening more and putting the Chancellor in the hot seat,” Weinstein said. “It does feel more of like a presentation and parade of all these things. And I will accept that for this because we have two weeks.”
Frank Baumgartner said the ultimate goal was to provide the community with information.
“It’s time to present some harsh truths, present some targets for reform, and then it is on the Chancellor to say, 'You know what, I’m not gonna do any of this stuff,'" Baumgartner said.
Baumgartner expected that Chancellor Guskiewicz would approve of the commission’s recommendations and look forward to more details.
Members skipped subcommittee updates to provide time for Perry’s presentation on geofencing.
Geofencing is a location-based service that allows apps and software that use GPS, Wi-Fi, RFID or cellular data to trigger pre-programmed actions, according to CIO Magazine. These actions are triggered when a mobile device or RFID tag enters or exits a virtual boundary set up around a geographical location – in other words, a geofence.
Using geofencing technology to scan social media profiles and pick up on keywords is legal without a court order. UNC Police use geofencing to filter social media posts on campus. Their word library is triggered by images and language related to wellness, harassment, harm and sexual violence.
“We are scanning in advance to hopefully stay ahead of the bang. Of course, you know the bang is the bad incident – the bad thing that we do not want to happen,” Perry said.
The technology is not monitoring individuals every moment and individuals are not directly identified by name, Perry said. It is also triggered by language and images posted off-campus when mentioned in the context of UNC.
“If someone posts that they are planting a bomb in the South Building tomorrow, 'bomb' would be one of the key words that we would be looking for,” Perry said. “But we’re not looking for that person. We’re scanning for those phrases or terms or images.”
Commission Member Lawrence Grossberg asked what would happen if someone posted, “I hate my class. I want to blow it up.”
Perry said they would immediately try to identify that person, their affiliation and what campus they were on. He said such a post was a terroristic threat and an act of violence.
“We wouldn’t come arrest you, but we would wanna identify that person and then go interview them or have a local law enforcement officer in that area wherever they are,” Perry said.
Members disagreed over what constituted metaphorical and literal threats. Grossberg said UNC Police’s use of geofencing struck him as intrusive.
“That strikes me as precisely violating my privacy. You have no reason to assume I meant it literally,” Grossberg said.
Muller said he hopes police will be respectful of First Amendment values and not leap to assumptions. Grossberg hoped otherwise.
“My real hope is that they would take humanities classes in the practices of interpretation and understand how to read text.”
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