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Tracked: How colleges use AI to monitor student protests

The Dallas Morning News, Arijit (Ari) D. Sen [subscription or online database access. Note – they are also making public nearly 3,000 documents, covering more than 56,000 pages from these schools]: “The pitch was attractive and simple. For a few thousand dollars a year, Social Sentinel offered schools across the country sophisticated technology to scan social media posts from students at risk of harming themselves or others. Used correctly, the tool could help save lives, the company said. For some colleges that bought the service, it also served a different purpose — allowing campus police to surveil student protests. During demonstrations over a Confederate statue at UNC-Chapel Hill, a Social Sentinel employee entered keywords into the company’s monitoring tool to find posts related to the protests. At Kennesaw State University in Georgia five years ago, authorities used the service to track protesters at a town hall with a U.S. senator, records show. And at North Carolina A&T, a campus official told a Social Sentinel employee to enter keywords to find posts related to a cheerleader’s allegation that the school mishandled her rape complaint. An investigation by The Dallas Morning News and the Investigative Reporting Program at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism reveals for the first time that as more students have embraced social media as a digital town square to express opinions and organize demonstrations, many college police departments have been using taxpayer dollars to pay for Social Sentinel’s services to monitor what they say. At least 37 colleges, including four in North Texas, collectively educating hundreds of thousands of students, have used Social Sentinel since 2015.

The true number of colleges that used the tool could be far higher. In an email to a UT Dallas police lieutenant, the company’s co-founder, Gary Margolis, said it was used by “hundreds of colleges and universities in 36 states.” Margolis declined to comment on this story. The News examined thousands of pages of emails, contracts and marketing material from colleges around the country, and spoke to school officials, campus police, activists and experts. The investigation shows that, despite publicly saying its service was not a surveillance tool, Social Sentinel representatives promoted the tool to universities for “mitigating” and “forestalling” protests. The documents also show the company has been moving in a new and potentially more invasive direction — allowing schools to monitor student emails on university accounts…”

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