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University police surveil student social media in attempt to make campus safer

A very interesting article in Campus Safety Magazine explores a disturbing practice we’ve been hearing more and more about — schools and campus police proactively surveilling students’ social media accounts to find possible wrongdoing while it’s happening or before it happens. If that idea troubles you, you are not alone.

A lack of context

Campus Safety Magazine reports that the University of Virginia contracts with a service called Social Sentinel for $18,500 a year to monitor its students’ public social media posts. It works by scanning student social media accounts based on a “library of harm” of thousands of words curated by Social Sentinel in addition to words tailored to the specific school contracting with them. Posts from students containing words on these lists are forwarded to the police, who then decide whether or not to investigate the students.

“We look at the whole context of the post,” says University of Virginia police officer and crime analyst Beth Davis.

And therein lies a major problem. The “whole context” of a post is almost never available to someone as far removed from the post as an officer or school administrator reading it. Innocuous or inside jokes, and a whole host of other protected speech, will often be completely lost on them and could appear threatening without that crucial context.

“You have to translate the old mentality of ‘see something, say something’ to seeing threats online and reporting them and acting on them if necessary,” said Officer Ben Rexrode, community service and crime prevention coordinator for the University of Virginia police.

And of course, he’s right that threats should be reported to the police. Students should be encouraged to report threatening social media posts, and police should take those reports seriously. But police surveillance also differs from simply encouraging members of the public to report suspicious behavior. For example, when a student sees something on social media and reports it to the police, they’re doing so usually because they have the context to understand the post and still find it threatening.

A crucial difference between a report from an algorithm and from a student is that when a student reports a post to the police, they are exercising their judgment to decide that a tweet could be threatening, and then the police are using their judgment about whether or not to investigate. Forwarding any post that pings an algorithm to police, and then having the police make a judgment about its context, eliminates from the equation those most capable of judging a social media post’s context: the post’s audience. It’s a scattershot tactic in an arena where precision is paramount.

The officers may be able to intuitively eliminate some “false positives” that the algorithm spits out, such as students tweeting about “good shots” at a sporting event, as mentioned in the article. However, since their job is to keep the campus safe, they are incentivized to investigate borderline cases, and that incentive works to increase the number false positives.

A chilling effect

“But what’s the harm in that?” you may ask. Put yourself in the shoes of a student on campus. What would you do if you’re aware that anything you post may be flagged by the school administration or police for containing one of the thousands of keywords in Social Sentinel’s library of harm? Do you make the decision to tweet less? Do you restrict your posts to friends only? It seems hard to imagine how you could moderate your tweets to avoid thousands of words when you have no idea what they are.

And assume you do get flagged and questioned by police. Many people would probably change their behavior. And while people might want to be mindful of what they post publicly online, fear of police and their school monitoring them and misinterpreting their messages shouldn’t be something students have to navigate.

In many cases, students aren’t even aware they’re being surveilled, like Georgia Institute of Technology student Matthew Wolfsen, who, as mentioned in the article, only discovered the university had been tracking and archiving his social media posts when he requested his records. If there is one thing creepier than all-encompassing social media surveillance, it’s secret all-encompassing social media surveillance. And how would you change your posts if you knew they could end up in your student records?

All of that aside, there is the question of where this will lead. Will we see schools begin to use social media monitoring to enforce the unconstitutional speech codes that are all too common? It’s impossible to say for sure, but it must be tempting as schools look to justify the tens of thousands of dollars that they spend on these programs.

There is also no guarantee that the list of words only includes words signaling potential behaviors that are threatening to others. Could references to private drug use be included in the list? Until the list and the protocols for proceeding on the surveillance are made public, we are all really left to blindly trust in those who are running this expansive surveillance system.

The free exchange of ideas on campus is an invaluable and irreplaceable part of the ideal college experience, and the chilling effect of student social media surveillance actively undermines that. It goes without saying that the goal of making campus safer is laudable, and in this day and age, campus safety is a hot-button issue. But not all solutions are equal, and these blanket surveillance programs are a bridge too far.

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