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FAHLBERG: UPD must end social media surveillance

The University Police’s recent adoption of the social media monitoring software Social Sentinel raises concerns about over-extensive government surveillance on Grounds.

<p>While the University’s eagerness to promote student safety is commendable, the means through which it attempts to do so are concerning.</p>

While the University’s eagerness to promote student safety is commendable, the means through which it attempts to do so are concerning.

The University Police Department recently announced that it will spend $18,500 a year on a new social media monitoring software (SMMS) called Social Sentinel which will scan public social media posts worldwide. The University adopted this surveillance technology in response to the “Unite the Right” rally that occurred in Charlottesville this past August, hoping that it would better equip police with the ability to respond to similar threats in the future. Social Sentinel’s surveillance technology searches for keywords such as “bomb,” “shot” or “kill” — along with a plethora of other words in its “library of harm” — in social media posts and sends them directly to University Police for further investigation. 

While the University’s eagerness to promote student safety is commendable, the means through which it attempts to do so are concerning. Not only is this technology inefficient and often inaccurate, it also has the potential to unnecessarily profile ordinary citizens, target marginalized groups and waste money that could otherwise be allocated toward programs that actually affect student safety.

A significant portion of police departments in the United States have adopted SMMS technologies to improve their data collection capabilities. Despite their widespread use, these artificial intelligence screening technologies are far from perfect. SMMS algorithms struggle to make accurate judgments about the connotations associated with different types of language, causing them to interpret hyperbolic or sarcastic social media posts as legitimate threats. This technology can also fail to account for homonyms or idiomatic expressions, flagging harmless phrases referring to “good shots” in a sports game. But even in the case that a social media post is determined to be a legitimate threat, it is unclear how police can and should respond. 

Chad Marlow, from the American Civil Liberties Union, recently remarked, “It is very important to draw the line between punishing an action that occurs on social media vs. thoughts that are expressed on social media. Once you start policing and punishing thoughts, you are in very, very dangerous territory.” Considering most speech is constitutionally protected, it remains unclear how the University plans to preemptively respond to any social media threats when no crime has actually been committed.

With the rise of social media, constitutional concerns regarding Internet privacy have become more complicated than ever before. Because individuals often willingly consent to publicly share their location and posts upon registering for social media platforms, law enforcement officials are not required to obtain a search warrant prior to searching publicly posted social media posts. But just because police can search this information doesn’t mean they should. Even ordinary citizens can be targeted by these technologies. 

Several police departments have used SMMS technologies to profile specific political or religious groups rather than actually fight crime. The Boston Police Department (BPD) was recently discovered to have used Geofeedia SMMS technology to target speech associated with specific ethnic and religious groups. Not only did this technology give the BPD virtually unlimited access to social media data within a 15 kilometer search radius, but it also flagged posts that included non-threatening, constitutionally protected speech used by political activists and ordinary citizens. In 2014, the BPD began using Geofeedia to track social media posts including phrases such as “Ferguson” and “#blacklivesmatter.” 

One year later, the program notifying BPD police officers of social media posts including “Islamist extremist terminology” such as “jihad,” “ISIS” and a host of other Arabic words and phrases associated with Islam. Rather than identify threatening social media posts, this technology flagged Arabic words concerning Islam and political rhetoric expressed by supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement. Although the BPD has since abandoned its use of Geofeedia technology, it is clear the potential SMMS technology has for disproportionately targeting minority groups and political activists.

University President Teresa Sullivan recently participated in a Cavalier Daily interview where she discussed the implementation of Social Sentinel on Grounds. In response to a question about the “potential privacy implications for students,” Sullivan replied, “For students? Well, I hope it will improve both the perceived and the actual safety of students, and of faculty too.” Sullivan admitted that the “perceived safety” of students is a contributing factor in the implementation of this program. It appears that the University administration is more concerned with fabricating a facade of safety than actually adopting measures that have a proven record of fighting crime.

Arbitrarily surveilling ordinary citizens as a precautionary measure ultimately poses more costs than benefits. SMMS technologies should only be used when law enforcement officials have a reasonable suspicion that an individual has committed a crime and that the collection of said information is pertinent to that investigation. If the University does choose to continue the program, the administration should be fully transparent about Social Sentinel’s data collection and storage methods, especially considering the fact student data will now be in the hands of a third party. Although the University claims that it will only monitor public social media posts, it remains to be seen how this program will extend its surveillance capabilities in the future. 

Audrey Fahlberg is a Viewpoint writer for The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at