The University of Connecticut has been tracking student social media posts using an artificial intelligence tool called Social Sentinel since 2015. The software was used specifically by UCPD, which took action based on Social Sentinel alerts on at least three occasions.
A report from the Dallas Morning News identified UConn as one of at least 37 colleges which use Social Sentinel. This report included more than 250 pages of email communications, agreements and other documents about UConn’s use of social media tracking.
UConn entered into a $9,999 contract with Social Sentinel in 2015. Since then, the contract has been renewed multiple times, with the rates increasing over the course of several years. Social Sentinel was acquired by Navigate360 in late 2020.
In 2019, the university signed an agreement to pay up to $19,998 for Social Sentinel for a twelve month agreement ending May 31, 2020. The university renewed that agreement the following year, amending the price to be $29,997.
Crime logs reveal the UConn police were actively using Social Sentinel/Navigate360 as recently as spring 2022.
Social Sentinel/Navigate360 scans social media for potential threats and then sends alerts to UCPD staff members, sometimes by text. UCPD staff members then decide how best to handle the alerts.
Tom Proctor, a Social Sentinel client success coordinator, outlined how alerts are created in a June 2018 email to Deputy Chief of Police Andrew Fournier. According to Proctor, it starts with all possible public social media conversations associated with the UConn community.
“What you receive as an alert (which is 0.3% of associated social media activity) is what our system recognized as a potential threat based on the content of the post,” wrote Proctor. “While some of the alerts you receive are not always actionable, our system is picking up on activity that is worth a deeper dive and potentially taking action.”
The Daily Campus obtained the police record for an April 2022 incident in which UCPD received a Social Sentinel alert and opened a case because of it.
According to the incident report, the university was alerted to a threat of self-harm by a Twitter user. UCPD then obtained the IP address affiliated with the post and used that information to identify the user and request a wellness check.
This aligns with an email from June 10, 2019, in which Sergeant Peter Harris discussed how the Social Sentinel/Navigate360 alerts were handled.
“If they deem the alert requires additional follow up, they forward the email or text message with the link to the on-duty supervisor to assign an Officer to investigate. Typically in those cases, the Supervisor will generate a case number in our report writing system to document the outcome of the alert,” wrote Harris in the email.
While the April 2022 incident was centered around a single threat of self-harm, that is not the only thing for which the university used Social Sentinel.
UCPD had a list of terms which they tracked for on social media. These terms included major figures such as ‘Tom Katsouleas’ or ‘Susan Herbst’ as well as places such as ‘Gampel’ and ‘Hilltop’.
UConn also used Social Sentinel to track large events on campus, in particular politically charged events. UCPD representatives could add and change terms the university was actively tracking as needed.
For example, Fournier emailed Proctor about adding ‘Lucian Wintrich’ to the terms being tracked on Nov. 27, 2017.
“The following speaker will be hosted by a UConn student group tomorrow, November 28th. Please add his name and his affiliate organization to our search terms for monitoring for the next 48 hours. Thanks,” wrote Fournier.
The university also monitored for threats to specific events.
“The university is hosting a day-long event (Metanoia) on November 8, 2017 which will focus on confronting racism,” wrote Fournier in an email to Proctor on November 1, 2017. “Please add terms to our account for any threats against this event; with continued monitoring through November 8.”
UCPD also asked for tracking on a speaking event with right-wing commentator Ben Shapiro, a speaking event with two former US Senators, and a candlelight vigil following the violence at Charlottesville, NC protests.
In a statement to The Daily Campus, University Spokesperson Stephanie Reitz clarified UConn’s use of Social Sentinel.
“UConn has used Social Sentinel at specific times when high-profile speakers have visited campus, flagging key words or phrases in Twitter and Reddit that may indicate potential threats or safety concerns,” said the statement.
The statement emphasized the posts being tracked are publicly available, and could be tracked manually if Social Sentinel was not being used.
“Again, it is important to note that the posts are already publicly viewable, and does not delve into email accounts, text messaging, or private correspondence,” said the statement. “It is simply a faster and more efficient alternative to manually viewing and flagging items that could require immediate attention to ensure public health and safety.”
While Navigate360 advertises a feature which allows universities to monitor private communication such as email, UConn was clear this feature was not deployed by UCPD.
“The service does not monitor private correspondence, emails, text messages, or other communications in which there’s a reasonable expectation of privacy,” read the statement.
To that end, said the statement, the number of people who can access alerts from the service are limited.
“UConn takes extra steps to ensure the responsible and appropriate use of these kinds 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,” read the university statement.
In a 2019 email, Harris said that only on-call lieutenants and himself were receiving text alerts from Social Sentinel/Navigate360. Other emails indicate that Fournier also was receiving text alerts.
In 2021, UConn entered into a $1.5 million agreement with another tracking service, Securly, on behalf of Connecticut Education Network, the government office which provides Wi-Fi to K-12 schools and colleges in Connecticut. The agreement specifies use of Securly services for “Connecticut K-12 schools and libraries”.
The university said the intention when using Social Sentinel/Navigate360 is to take a measured approach to monitoring social media.
“UConn takes a thoughtful and carefully planned approach to ways in which it leverages technology to help ensure campus safety while also respecting the free speech and privacy rights of its students, employees, and guests,” read the university statement.