The Daily Tar Heel
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The Daily Tar Heel

In December, an NBC News story by UNC student journalist Ari Sen revealed that the University used geofencing “to collect personal information from the cellphones of antiracism protesters.” 

In 2016, UNC signed a three-year, $73,500 contract with Social Sentinel Inc. for the use of geofencing. Although the contract ended in October 2019, the University apparently still uses geofencing to monitor social media activity on campus.

The technology scans social media profiles for images and language related to wellness, harassment, harm and sexual violence. Such practices are legal without a court order. 

At the Campus Safety Commission's Summit on Safety and Belonging on Tuesday, UNC Chief of Police David Perry defending the use of geofencing, saying it is justified because it ensures student safety. During his tenure at Florida State University, he said, geofencing helped police prevent a student from committing suicide, according to activist Lindsay Ayling.

But neither Guskiewicz nor Perry could name a specific instance in which geofencing prevented violence or crime at UNC when asked by Sen.

The editorial board vigorously condemns mass surveillance in all its forms, especially on our own campus. We fear that this is simply an excuse for the University to keep tabs on anti-racist protesters in a further attempt to discourage petition and assembly. 

Something about it just feels a little too insidious. 

Given the University’s enduring hostility toward the activist community, the fact that it is willing to pay as much as $73,500 to monitor their social media activity without their knowledge or consent is, frankly, not surprising. 

Still, it’s alarming. This technology puts even more power in the hands of UNC Police — power that can too easily be abused, especially given UNC’s track record of antagonizing student activists. It’s worth noting here that UNC Police has spied on activists before; in 2017, an undercover officer was assigned to pose as a fellow protester during the Silent Sam demonstrations.

Unfortunately, this isn’t even the only example of the University using technology as a means for surveillance. In September, The Daily Tar Heel reported that UNC launched a pilot program that uses beacon technology to track the attendance of student-athletes. The technology, known as SpotterEDU, uses beacon devices installed in classrooms to send a Bluetooth signal to the smartphones of student-athletes when they are within range of the device.

Ironic how this technology supposedly makes us safer, yet we feel more vulnerable than ever. 

UNC should, at the very least, be transparent with regards to its use of geofencing. Despite Perry’s attempts to provide clarity at a recent meeting of the Campus Safety Commission, we’re still left with more questions than answers. Among them: What are the keywords that the University is monitoring for? What does the University classify as a threat? How will the University determine whether or not a threat is valid? 

Justifying mass surveillance by telling students it’s for their “own safety” is a dangerous narrative that straight-up borders on Orwellian. The University has given us a false dichotomy, in which we ostensibly must give up our civil liberties in exchange for peace of mind. But there shouldn’t have to be a trade-off between safety and privacy.

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