Big Brother is here! I bet you did not know the scope of this surveillance. Though not a 4th Amendment violation, it seems insidious to me, with lots of room for abuses. Open the whole story to see how widespread is the surveillance by several of these companies.
Excerpts from the Article:
Unbeknownst to college students across the country, their school may be surveilling their social media activity. What may be even more surprising to learn is that even individuals who have no affiliation with a school that’s engaged in this type of surveillance may nevertheless have their social media activity scooped up in the school’s social media surveillance dragnet simply due to their proximity to campus.
That’s what happened to Bobby Padgett. He wasn’t a student at East Carolina University (“ECU”). But that didn’t stop him from being monitored and surveilled on social media by the campus’ upper-level administrators and law enforcement unit utilizing a third-party company’s platform to do so.
Padgett – an activist who lived off campus when it happened in 2016 – had posted a tweet calling the university’s chancellor a “right wing PoS [piece of shit]” and saying that it was “Time to crash his account or [to do an] old school sit in.”
The tweet caught the attention of administrators and law enforcement officers at ECU, who were using a platform named Social Sentinel to monitor key words in public posts on the social media sites Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. A background check was subsequently done on Padgett, examining who he was, what his political views were, and his ties to ECU (he had none), among other things.
“Do we know Bobby Padgett? I don’t think students are thinking/planning a sit in … but BP may be encouraging it,” wrote Virginia Hardy, ECU’s vice chancellor for student affairs, in an email to other administrators in July 2016.
Campus law enforcement at ECU also had done research on Padgett and explained more about Padgett’s activist background to their administrative-level colleagues. In essence, both law enforcement and campus administrators created a dossier on him in reaction to a tweet he disseminated, which was detected by Social Sentinel.
“He looks to have an affiliation with Progress North Carolina Action,” wrote Chris Sutton, a lieutenant with the ECU Police Department, in a July email. “He also comments on Southern Progressives feed on Facebook. They seem to have very similar views. According to some of his posts, his son is enrolled at App State. He attended an orientation there in June. He has a big platform for teacher rights also.”
When all was said and done, nothing came of the ECU probe on Padgett, though.
Padgett had simply expressed his political views in a tweet. He was not a campus organizer or leader but merely a voice with passionate views who sent out a tweet about the university’s upper-level brass. And that was enough to ensnare him in a campus law enforcement query at ECU due to its use of Social Sentinel.
Padgett, in a comment provided to Criminal Legal News, chocked up the situation to well-documented conservative political maneuvering by the University of North Carolina System.
“Given the right-wing takeover of North Carolina, I don’t find this surprising,” remarked Padgett. “The UNC Board of Governors has been replaced with reactionaries over the past eight years, and in turn, right wing ideologues have increasingly replaced open minded chancellors at the constituent schools. To learn that a supposed institute of tolerance and learning in North Carolina has resorted to Orwellian social media trolling saddens me, but it fails to surprise me.”
Speaking to the Padgett alert specifically, Electronic Frontier Foundation’s (“EFF”) senior staff attorney Sophia Cope told Criminal Legal News that “If the school is monitoring and then perhaps also taking action against students planning a demonstration, that implicates First Amendment-protected petitioning activity on its face.”
And yet, Padgett’s story isn’t an isolated incident, by any means.
A document obtained via an open records request shows Social Sentinel boasting of its ability to help law enforcement police protests. In a white paper titled, “Demonstrations and Protests: Using Social Media to Gather Intelligence and Respond to Campus Crowds,” Social Sentinel pointed to the platform’s ability to single out individuals fitting in the bad apples camp during protests and demonstrations.
Social Sentinel has landed contracts not only throughout North Carolina, but also across the country, according to a review of news clippings by Criminal Legal News. Prior to going by the name Social Sentinel, the company was known as Campus Sentinel.
Not everyone was always blindly gung-ho about use of Social Sentinel, however. At least one campus administrator, Associate Dean of Students Travis Lewis, raised legal questions about its use on-campus. The officer asked whether Social Sentinel could be described as an “intercept technology,” which is defined under North Carolina law as something academic institutions are prohibited from using.
ECU’s answer as to whether Social Sentinel raised legal red flags, upon review though, was answered in the negative. Social Sentinel general counsel Liz Kleinberg said she spoke with the campus chief technology officer, who told her they do not use intercept technology.
.To date, Social Sentinel has clients in 24 states. And in the aftermath of the Parkland, Florida, high school shooting in February 2018, CEO Margolis went on Fox News to say his company could have prevented the Parkland shooter from doing what he did, which ended in the deaths of 17 people.
“Social media has become the primary connection tool and communication tool for an entire generation. They’re sharing the good, the bad and the ugly, so to speak” Margolis told Fox News. “So, what we realized in this case was that it was important for school administrators to be able to be able to understand what was being shared given that’s where, in the cloud up on social media, so many students are putting what they’re feeling, how they’re feeling, their anger, their sadness, their happiness. And, so we set out to build a service that would give insights to school administrators on potential threats of harm and violence.”
The company also swooped into town in the aftermath of the August 12, 2017, incident in Charlottesville, Virginia, in which a neo-Nazi fatally plowed his car into Heather Heyer. Many others were wounded in that clash pitting the neo-Nazis against those affiliated with the Antifa cause, shorthand for anti-fascism.
In September 2017 – a month after the deadly affair in Charlottesville – Social Sentinel signed an $18,500 contract with the University of Virginia, which is based in Charlottesville.
The ACLU of Virginia has expressed concerns about the university signing up with Social Sentinel, telling the The Daily Progress in Charlottesville that it could rope in people innocent of any criminal wrongdoing in law enforcement probes.
“This really isn’t the way to find the bad guys, because they’re texting and emailing and using private groups,” ACLU of Virginia spokesman Bill Farrar told The Daily Progress.
Social Sentinel also could spread its wings to Florida in the coming months thanks to a provision buried in a 105-page bill passed in the aftermath of the Parkland shooting by the state’s legislature. That bill created an Office of Safe Schools for the Florida Department of Education, directing that office to “coordinate with the Department of Law Enforcement to provide a centralized integrated data repository and data analytics resource to improve access to timely, complete and accurate information.”
Similarly, Social Sentinel could soon land in 30 school districts in the southeast portion of Texas. With plenty of guns in the state, the business opportunities could be ample for the company in a place in which – as the slogan goes – “everything is bigger.”