On September 20, Dallas Morning News investigative journalists Ari Sen and Derêka K. Bennett revealed that dozens of colleges and universities across the country have been using the AI-powered social media spy service Social Sentinel, also known as Navigate360 Detect monitor their students, including their political activities. The University of Connecticut is a Social Sentinel customer. According to the “Social Sentinel Alert” category in an April 2022 UCPD crime report, the service is still in use. UConn monitors your social media activity and you should be alert.
Email threads released by Sen and Bennett’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests revealed the true extent of this espionage. Between June 2020 and June 2021, UConn used Social Sentinel to collect 1,299,711 social media posts and scanned 91,503 images. The email, sent by Social Sentinel staff to UCPD officials, read: “Over the last 12 months, we’ve saved your team over 10,000 hours by adding nearly 1.3 million social media posts to yours community…” The latest publicly available agreement between UConn and Social Sentinel cost the university $29,997.
Social Sentinel can scan popular social media sites like Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook, but that’s not all. Social Sentinel is also capable of scanning your university email and university Google Drive, although UConn officially denies that they target email. While Social Sentinel and UConn consider the information posted on your social media to be public, many social media users still post personally sensitive information on their unblocked accounts. Just because the public can see this information does not mean it is ethical for the university to monitor it.
If that sounds like a gross invasion of your privacy and a violation of your First Amendment rights, that’s because it is. A law professor at American University’s Washington College of Law, Andrew Ferguson, told the Dallas Morning News, “Obviously, this is somewhat chilling for the First Amendment freedoms of people who believe in a right to protest and dissent.” This service has not only has the potential to monitor protests and political events, but is actively used by several universities, including UConn.
The email chains between UConn officials and Social Sentinel show that UConn increased surveillance of numerous political events and protests, and used politically charged keywords to increase Social Sentinel sensitivity. On August 12, 2017, anti-fascist activist Heather Heyer was murdered by a neo-Nazi in a terrorist attack in Charlottesville, West Virginia. On August 31, 2017, a vigil was held in her memory in UConn, but unknown to the public, UCPD Deputy Chief Andrew Fournier called on the Social Sentinel to up the ante. Later in 2017, alt-right arsonist Lucian Wintrich, who has appeared on a white nationalist podcast, spoke at an event that UCPD Social Sentinel deployed to closely monitor it. Then, in 2018, Ben Shapiro came to speak on campus, and Fourneir again urged Social Sentinel to monitor students’ social media posts for politically charged news related to the event. UCPD also uses Social Sentinel to track mentions of popular places on campus, the names of university presidents, and speeches about UCPD itself. Whether the university intends to or not, by closely monitoring political events and mentions of UConn institutions, it puts even more scrutiny on politically engaged students.
The student body, staff, faculty, and members of the local community deserve to speak freely without fear of being observed by university officials. It is wrong to monitor our social media accounts and other online activities. This is particularly alarming for those of us who are politically involved in our communities and who criticize the government for subjecting us to increased surveillance. UConn has created a panopticon. Across campus, UConn’s sophisticated security camera system monitors your every move and was first used by UCPD officers to track and harass individuals in 2020. Now we know that espionage extends to our private lives, with private security companies and the UCPD intensely monitoring our online activities. For those who value the right to privacy and free speech, this is unacceptable. For a university committed to human rights, it is a pity that UConn does not put its supposed values into practice. The surveillance state created at UConn poses the greatest threat to the most basic rights of the student body, but it need not be.
Following the revelation that the University of North Carolina used monitoring services similar to Social Sentinel/Navigate360 to track student speech about abortion rights and to closely monitor protests, UNC will not renew its contract with Navigate360. With enough public pressure and visibility, we may be able to get UConn to shut down the service as well. Terminating UConn’s contract with Navigate360 would be an important first step in restoring our rights to actually embody the university’s supposed values and to dismantle the dystopia that the state has created here.
In the meantime, if you’re concerned about university officials spying on your online activities, remove the “UConn 20XX” from your bio, consider making your social media accounts private, and avoid using University accounts for personal use. The surveillance state extends well beyond this campus, and we should all start taking digital privacy and security seriously.