The Daily Tar Heel

Serving the students and the University community since 1893

Monday December 5th

Editorial: UNC's surveillance state

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There’s an unspoken agreement between yourself and your University.

This trust needs no verbal confirmation. We expect the University that houses us, educates us and cultivates our growth for four years to have our best interest in mind. We are given a place on campus to express ourselves and show concern for the issues we care about – most importantly, in the form of protest.

The University has violated this agreement.

Last week, the Dallas Morning News published an article detailing the extent of UNC’s contract with AI-based service Social Sentinel. Much of this use has involved monitoring student protests using Local+Lists, a feature that allows clients to create a “geofence” in which they are alerted of specific language and phrases on social media platforms on devices within a certain geographic area.

If this sounds abhorrently dystopian, that’s because it is. 

Emails acquired via public records request show that, in 2015, a similar service was used to track phrases such as “#feminism” and “#reproductivejustice” as anti-abortion activists hosted an event on campus. UNC signed its contract with Social Sentinel in 2016, and used the service to track social media posts surrounding protests and the removal of Silent Sam.

The University has paid a hefty price – $24,500 annually – to surveil student behaviors and interactions on social media in relation to the ongoing social justice issues that plague our campus.

If UNC has taught us anything, it’s that the administration has worked adamantly to devalue student advocacy, silence protestors and maintain a status quo that only serves the University’s most powerful stakeholders.

We, evidently, are not powerful stakeholders in UNC’s eye, despite being its primary constituency.

Don’t believe us? We took a look at all the times (don’t worry, just the most recent ones – otherwise, we’d be here all day) UNC used its money and/or power in ways that were detrimental to the student body:

  • An attempted $2.5 million settlement with the Sons of Confederate Veterans in November 2019. The settlement was later thrown out, but the University paid over $240,000 to legal counsel throughout the course of the settlement process.
  • UNC’s invasive probe of over 20 faculty members’ emails and hard drives earlier this year, which didn’t come to light for nearly seven months as the University dragged its feet to comply with a public records request.
  • A $74,999.99 settlement paid to Nikole Hannah-Jones after she was initially denied tenure at the Hussman School of Journalism and Media. This denial came after multi-million dollar donor Walter Hussman, the school’s namesake, expressed concern over Hannah-Jones’ role in the program.
  • Dangerous amounts of lead in the water of eight (as of Sept. 27) campus buildings with no standardized testing system nearly a week after lead was first detected. Furthermore, spotty communications from the University make it unclear where and when exactly lead was detected.
  • And now, two contracts with Social Sentinel, the first of which dates back to 2016.

The use of this service is a concerted effort to squander student advocacy when it is no longer palatable to the administration. And if history tells us anything, the University only has an appetite for wealthy donors and Confederate groups.

The utter lack of transparency coupled with the institutional abuse of power is indicative of a long-standing pattern of deplorable behavior. It’s shameless self-interest and it’s hurting students.

This is a direct attack on student activism and an attempt to make us insecure in our efforts toward a more just campus. 

UNC says they will end their contract with Social Sentinel this year, but the damage is already done.

It is reprehensible that the University ever partook in such an egregious violation of student trust, and did so to advance its own interests over those of its student body. 

Until the University acknowledges its misuse of power in tracking student protestors – which the Editorial Board urges the administration to do – it’s clear that this relationship is purely one-sided.

We are just left wondering: What boundary will UNC violate next?

@dthopinion

opinion@dailytarheel.com

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