US: North Carolina universities used taxpayer funds to track students' social media posts

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  North Carolina universities used taxpayer funds to track students' social media posts © Provided by Washington Examiner

(The Center Square) — A new report shows at least five North Carolina public universities used taxpayer funds to track students' social media in recent years, using artificial intelligence software to monitor posts on everything from student protests to drug sales.

Two other private schools in the state also used the software to monitor students as well.

The report, published in the Dallas Morning News in concert with the Pulitzer Center's AI Accountability Network, shows seven North Carolina colleges contracted with a company called Social Sentinel to monitor posts across several social media networks.

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At the University of North Carolina, officials in Chapel Hill used Social Sentinel to track posts related to the removal of the Silent Sam Confederate monument on campus.

"I got interested in Social Sentinel when I was an undergrad at UNC, actually," Ari Sen, author of the report, told WRAL. "So, the Silent Sam protests were happening all around me.

"And, I decided to start putting in some FOIAs (Freedom of Information Act) about what was happening with Silent Sam. And, I started to get documents back. And, in those documents, I saw that UNC had a contract with this company called Social Sentinel."

The revelation eventually led to similar findings at North Carolina State University, East Carolina University, North Carolina A&T University, the University of North Carolina at Asheville, Duke University and Wake Forest University.

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Further investigation confirmed Social Sentinel contracted with at least 37 colleges across the country since 2015, though the company's founder, Gary Margolis, claimed in an email Social Sentinel was used by "hundreds of colleges in 36 states," according to the News.

The company's CEO, J.P. Guilbault, said Social Sentinel is also used by one in four K-12 schools nationwide.

Thousands of pages of emails, contracts and marketing materials reviewed in the news investigation revealed the company promoted artificial intelligence as a means to track student well-being, as well as a tool for monitoring protests. The company eventually expanded services to allow schools to monitor student emails on school networks, though there's no evidence North Carolina colleges exercised that option.

"The University uses Social Sentinel to identify threatening or concerning public social media posts surrounding events and campus activities that require campus public safety. The University does not use the service to monitor student email," UNC-Chapel Hill wrote in a statement to WRAL. "The resource is an industry best practice, only uses public information and does not collect private personal information.

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“The University coordinates with and relies on assistance from state and federal law enforcement agencies when appropriate in order to ensure campus safety."

NC State officials claim "the product was used to identify possible threats to the university or a university-sponsored group/event through social media monitoring," according to a statement to the news site. "The product was not used to target individuals or groups for enforcement. The product could not be used to access information that wasn't publicly available."

The news investigation is raising concerns with some North Carolina lawmakers, including at least one who suggested the General Assembly may need to take action.

"This is absurd," state Rep. Graig Meyer, D-Orange, told WRAL. "Universities are using technology to spy on their own students in order to quash protests?"

"This raises a lot of issues that are not just legal, but are moral and ethical and that leaders need to think about and if universities haven't thought about this, then maybe we need to think about it at the General Assembly," Meyer said.

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Navigate360, an Ohio company that bought Social Sentinel in 2020 and changed the service's name to Navigate360 Detect earlier this year, described the News' investigation as "inaccurate, speculative or by opinion in many instances and significantly outdated."

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Tags: North Carolina, Taxes, Social Media, University

Original Author: Victor Skinner | The Center Square contributor

Original Location: North Carolina universities used taxpayer funds to track students' social media posts

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