UT Dallas purchased surveillance software from a company implicated in targeting student protests, records show
University of Texas at Dallas paid out $75,600 over the past seven years to a social media scanning technology company implicated in tracking, “mitigating” and “forestalling” protests, according to documents acquired by The College Fix.
A purchase order obtained by The Fix from the University of Texas at Dallas signed by the campus police department revealed the university spent $12,750 per year since the 2015-16 school year on a contract with Social Sentinel to use their “Social Media Scanning” program.
However, the police department told The Fix it was used solely for reducing student suicides.
“We started our use[of Social Sentinel] hoping to improve advanced notification of students that may be in a suicidal state since most of our communication on such regarding our students came to light via social media,” Larry Zacharias, UT Dallas chief of police, wrote in an email to The Fix.
“We never used the platform for any other purpose including tracking student protests,” Zacharias said.
However, campus police did use the program to look into three students and the university ended up suspending the students.
“We did during one semester, enter three students’ names to see if they appeared on social media,” Zacharias continued over email. “All three had been involved in criminal activity and were eventually suspended,” he added.
UT Dallas did not renew its three-year contract with Social Sentinel beginning in the 2021-22 academic year.
“Since Social Sentinel does not capture Facebook posts, we did not benefit like we hoped we would,” Zacharias wrote.
A top technology officer for the university did not know about the program when asked for comment by The Fix.
“This product/program is news to me,” Frank Feagans, the vice president and chief information offer at UT Dallas, stated in an email to The Fix. He has been at the university for seven years according to his LinkedIn.
Other universities have used the program to track protesters
The program has a history of being used to monitor student protests, as reported by The Dallas Morning News.
“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,” the Dallas Morning News reported in September. “At least 37 colleges, including four in North Texas, collectively educating hundreds of thousands of students, have used Social Sentinel since 2015.”
“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,” according to the article. “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 University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill signed a yearly contract for Social Sentinel in November 2016, but it was not clear what monitoring service was used in collaboration with the FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force to surveil posts of people protesting the “Silent Sam” confederate statue in 2017.
White papers obtained by The Dallas Morning News also revealed that Social Sentinel advertised their services to UT Dallas as capable of “Gather[ing] Intelligence and Respond to Campus Crowds.”
“Documents show schools may have used another feature of the service called the Local+ List to target protesters and individual students,” the News reported.
“At least one North Texas college — UT Dallas — could have used the feature to monitor individuals,” the News continued. “Vanessa Balderrama, a project coordinator for the university, said the school could not release its Local+ List because it contained students’ names.”
“For public colleges, the use of the service sets up an additional conflict between protecting students’ Constitutional rights of free speech and privacy and schools’ duty to keep them safe on campus,” Andrew Guthrie Ferguson, a law professor at American University’s Washington College of Law, stated in the article.
“What the technology allows you to do is identify individuals who are associated together or are associated with a place or location,” Ferguson said. “That is obviously somewhat chilling for First Amendment freedoms of people who believe in a right to protest and dissent.”
The College Fix reached out to Ferguson to ask whether universities were doing anything illegal in using this software and whether anyone beyond the schools’ police department had access. It has not received a response.
The Fix reached out to legal scholars at University of Texas at Austin to ask about Social Sentinel and potential conflicts between respect for students’ privacy and commitment to student safety. It contacted free speech expert and law professor David Rabban and media law professor Amy Sanders. Neither responded to multiple inquiries.
IMAGE: Social Sentinel