The University of Connecticut has been tracking student social media posts since 2015, using an artificial intelligence tool called Social Sentinel. The software was specifically used by UCPD, which acted on Social Sentinel alerts on at least three occasions.
A report of the Dallas Morning News identified UConn as one of at least 37 colleges using Social Sentinel. This report contained more than 250 pages of email communications, agreements and other documents about UConn’s use of social media tracking.
UConn took on a $9,999 contract with Social Sentinel in 2015. Since then, the contract has been extended several times, with rates increasing over several years. Social Sentinel was acquired by Navigate360 at the end of 2020.
In 2019, the university signed a agreement to pay up to $19,998 for Social Sentinel for a twelve-month agreement ending May 31, 2020. The university extended that agreement the following year, changing the price to $29,997.
Reveal Crime Logs the UConn Police Department made active use of Social Sentinel/Navigate360 in the spring of 2022.
Social Sentinel/Navigate360 scans social media for potential threats and then sends alerts to UCPD employees, sometimes via text message. UCPD staff then decide how best to handle the alerts.
Tom Proctor, a Social Sentinel customer success coordinator, explained how alerts are created in a June 2018 email to Deputy Police Chief Andrew Fournier. According to Proctor, it starts with all possible public social media conversations related to the UConn community.
“What you receive as a warning (which is 0.3% of associated social media activity) is what our system has identified as a potential threat based on the content of the post,” Proctor wrote. “While some of the alerts you receive may not always be useful, our system picks up activities worth a deeper dive and may take action.”
The Daily Campus has obtained the police report for an April 2022 incident where UCPD received a Social Sentinel warning and therefore opened a case.
According to the incident report, the university was warned of a threat of self-harm by a Twitter user. UCPD then obtained the IP address associated with the post and used that information to identify the user and request a wellness check.
This corresponds to a June 10, 2019 email, in which Sergeant Peter Harris discussed how the Social Sentinel/Navigate360 alerts were handled.
“If they believe the alert requires additional follow-up, they will forward the email or text with the link to the supervisor on duty to designate an officer to investigate. Typically, in those cases, the supervisor generates a case number in our report writing system to document the outcome of the alert,” Harris wrote in the email.
While the April 2022 incident revolved around a single threat of self-harm, that’s not all the university used Social Sentinel for.
UCPD had a list of terms which they followed on social media. These terms include important figures such as “Tom Katsouleas” or “Susan Herbst,” as well as places such as “Gampel” and “Hilltop.”
UConn also used Social Sentinel to track major events on campus, especially politically charged ones. UCPD representatives could add and change terms and conditions that the university was actively following as needed.
For example, Fournier emailed Proctor about adding “Lucian Wintrich” to the terms to follow on Nov. 27, 2017.
“The next speaker will be hosted by a UConn student group tomorrow, November 28. Add his name and his affiliate organization to our search terms for monitoring for the next 48 hours. Thank you,” Fournier wrote.
The university also monitored threats to specific events.
“The university is hosting a one-day event (Metanoia) on November 8, 2017, aimed at fighting racism,” Fournier wrote in an email to Proctor on November 1, 2017. this event; with continuous monitoring until November 8.”
UCPD also requested tracking on a speaking event with right-wing commentator Ben Shapiro, a speaking event with two former US senators, and a candlelight vigil after the violence in Charlottesville, NC protests.
In a statement to The Daily Campus, university spokesman Stephanie Reitz clarified UConn’s use of Social Sentinel.
“UConn has used Social Sentinel at specific times when high-profile speakers have visited campus, highlighting key words or phrases on Twitter and Reddit that could indicate potential threats or security concerns,” the statement said.
The statement emphasized that the posts being tracked are publicly available and can be manually tracked if Social Sentinel is not being used.
“Again, it’s important to note that the posts are already publicly viewable and do not address email accounts, text messages or private correspondence,” the statement said. “It’s simply a faster and more efficient alternative to manually viewing and marking items that need immediate attention to ensure public health and safety.”
Although Navigate360 advertises a feature that allows universities to track private communications such as email, it was clear to UConn that this feature was not implemented by UCPD.
“The service does not monitor private correspondence, emails, text messages or other communications in which there is a reasonable expectation of privacy,” the statement said.
To that end, the statement said, the number of people who can access alerts from the service is limited.
“UConn takes additional steps to ensure the responsible and proper use of these types of monitoring practices, such as limiting access to a small number of authorized users directly involved in the security of the specific events or incidents,” the statement said. the University.
In a 2019 email, Harris said only he and himself were receiving text notifications from Social Sentinel/Navigate360. Other emails indicate that Fournier also received text messages.
In 2021, UConn entered into a $1.5 million deal with another tracking service, safe, on behalf of Connecticut Education Network, the government office that provides Wi-Fi to K-12 schools and colleges in Connecticut. The agreement specifies the use of Securly services for “Connecticut K-12 Schools and Libraries”.
The university said the intent in using Social Sentinel/Navigate360 is to take a measured approach to social media monitoring.
“UConn takes a thoughtful and carefully planned approach to ways it uses technology to ensure campus security while respecting the freedom of expression and privacy rights of its students, staff and guests,” read the university’s statement.