In 2018, Ari Sen was a UNC student photographing protests surrounding the Silent Sam statue. He said he was standing about three feet from the statue when it was toppled by community activists that August.
"I started talking to the activists," he said. "And what I was hearing from them was, 'we feel like we're being put on a list. We feel like we're being surveilled."'
Soon after, Sen said he started the long process of requesting records and asking the University for details as to how they monitor protests.
The requests yielded thousands of pages of documents.
The documents detailed the University's use of an AI-based service, Social Sentinel — and confirmed use of the software in the days after the toppling of Silent Sam.
UNC has been using Social Sentinel since 2016 to “identify threatening or concerning public social media posts.” The program scans publicly available social media content for keywords and phrases, and alerts the administration about when and how those words are used.
This October, however, the University said it will be ending its contract with the company.
Information about how UNC has used Social Sentinel to monitor events surrounding student protests was revealed Sept. 20 in a Dallas Morning News article by Sen. The company, now owned by Navigate360, advertises the service as a method of stopping students from harming themselves and others.
The University employed “geofencing” and the company’s Local+Lists feature in both 2017 and 2018 during the Silent Sam protests, according to the article and other documents obtained by Sen via public records requests. UNC used similar technology in 2015 to monitor activities surrounding pro-choice protests.
Geofencing and AI capabilities
“Geofencing” is a term used to describe technology that locates cell phones as they enter specific areas and records social media posts and other data when they are within that location. Social Sentinel says it only has access to public posts on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Youtube and Reddit, along with “a few other data sources via 3rd party aggregators.”
According to the 2016 contract between Social Sentinel and the University, Local+Lists can be customized to create “targeted, complex search structures to apply both inside and outside a geofence.”
Local+Lists are a unique feature of Social Sentinel that use artificial intelligence to give localized alerts. The software uses a customizable AI search engine to scan public posts for specific language and phrases and alert administrators accordingly.
Sen said Local+Lists can also target individual social media authors. Social Sentinel has the ability to apply its algorithm to scan students' emails — although the University told The Daily Tar Heel it has not used that function.
“The University does not and has not used the service to monitor student email," the UNC statement said. "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.”
Little is known about how Social Sentinel’s algorithms work, or what words and terms their AI automatically flags. Across universities, there have been reports of “false alarms” in which the program flags comedic posts or song lyrics — like the phrase "shooting stars" in a post referencing B.o.B's "Airplanes."
Impact at UNC
In emails obtained through Sen's public search requests, the UNC Police Department specifies that geofencing for specific events along with using local algorithms are two advantages of Social Sentinel that persuaded them to employ the service.
Contracts between the University and the company show that the University paid $24,500 annually to use the service between Nov. 1, 2016 and Oct. 31, 2019.
Emails from University officials show that, after that contract expired, former UNC Police Chief David L. Perry spearheaded efforts to sign another contract with the service. The University will not be renewing the current contract.
“We re-evaluated our relationship with the product and decided not to renew the contract,” the University said in an email statement to The Daily Tar Heel.
Other universities that have ended their contracts with Social Sentinel have cited its price and ineffectiveness as determining factors.
The documents from Sen's requests also show the University used Social Sentinel's geofencing and algorithmic services in August 2017, in order to acquire statistics about mentions of Silent Sam — and even single out content. Emails list the names and graduating years of staff, faculty and alumni that tweeted about the statue and its removal.
The University is shown to have used a similar technology called Geofeedia in October 2015, according to public records documents.
Geofeedia, which Dallas Morning News reports compare to Local+Lists, was included in a 2016 ACLU investigation. The findings reveal that Geofeedia was used to target activists of color, leading multiple social media platforms to end their contracts with the company.
The North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation also said it ended its contract with Geofeedia in light of the ACLU investigation. In an email statement to The Daily Tar Heel, the NCSBI denied using any social media monitoring service to surveil individual students or their emails.
“The NCSBI often receives requests from our law enforcement partners, including at times from university campus police agencies, to assist in researching social media posts which are publicly available and accessible by the general public, surrounding potentially threatening situations which could pose a potential risk to public safety, officer safety and/or critical infrastructure,” the NCSBI said in the statement.
The NCSBI said it does not monitor individual students or groups, or monitor students’ or other individuals’ emails.
The 2015 documents show the University asking the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation, which had a contract with Geofeedia, to establish a geofence and monitor social media activity about tensions between pro-choice and anti-choice protesters. They flagged terms like #feminist and #unc, along with the names of multiple student organizations focused on reproductive justice.
Questions that remain
One of the student organizations flagged was affiliated with the Campus Y, the University’s hub for social justice. Currently, the Campus Y is re-focusing on abortion access given the recent overturning of Roe v. Wade. One of the co-presidents, senior Megan Murphy, said the Supreme Court decision has led the Campus Y to rethink the way they approach new initiatives.
“It is forcing our community to reassess our public-facing approach,” Murphy said, “and it’s never easy to have those conversations when it comes to like, ‘how are we keeping our members safe?' Because one of the biggest pushes right now for the Campus Y community and Campus Y exec has been mutual aid — supporting folks who are seeking abortions, specifically because North Carolina has become such a safe haven state.”
While the Center for Reproductive Rights categorizes the state as "hostile" to abortion access, North Carolina is one of the only states in the Southeast without significant abortion restrictions or a full ban.
Deen Freelon, associate professor at the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media, said that monitoring social media is becoming a more common practice. What's interesting, he said, is the specific application of the tools provided by Social Sentinel.
Freelon found that, in general, most of the protests that were monitored across various universities were left-leaning.
“While I think it’s possible for the system to be used to monitor whoever, I find it interesting that that bias tends to reflect the way that police have traditionally treated different types of protesters," Freelon said. "Whether that’s being rougher with left-wing protesters, with Black protesters, with other protesters of color, or sort of soft-balling folks on the right, portraying their ideological sympathies there — I see that as very much in line with traditional police practices. In that respect, it's not surprising to me.”
Although UNC's contract with Social Sentinel will end next month, questions remain unanswered about University monitoring and campus safety.
“Obviously it’s good news, but what I’ve come to expect is that it’s kind of like whack-a-mole, these things. If they’re letting go of one thing, they’ve got other things on the horizon," Murphy said. "It doesn’t make me want to let my guard down. Absolutely not.”
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