The surveillance state comes to UConn

A person holding a phone with a variety of social media apps on it, including Facebook and Instagram. Social Sentinel has the ability to scan apps like Facebook and Instagram for monitoring purposes. Photo by Castorly Stock/Pexels

On Sept. 20, investigative journalists Ari Sen and Derêka K. Bennett of the Dallas Morning News revealed that dozens of colleges and universities across the country have been using the A.I. powered social media spying service, Social Sentinel, also known as Navigate360 Detect, to monitor their students, including their political activity. The University of Connecticut is among Social Sentinel’s clients. As evidenced by the “Social Sentinel alert” category in an April 2022 crime report from UCPD, the service is still in use. UConn is monitoring your social media activity, and you should be alarmed. 

Email threads released by Sen and Bennett’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests showed the true scale of this spying. Between June 2020 and June 2021, UConn used Social Sentinel to collect 1,299,711 social media posts and scan 91,503 images. The email sent from staff at Social Sentinel to UCPD officials read, “In the past 12 months, we have saved your team over 10,000 hours of time collecting nearly 1.3 million social media posts related to your community…” The most recent publicly available agreement between UConn and Social Sentinel cost the university $29,997. 

Social Sentinel has the ability to scan popular social media sites like Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, but it doesn’t stop there. Social Sentinel is also capable of scanning through your university emails and your university Google Drive, although UConn officially denies that they target emails. While Social Sentinel and UConn regard information posted to your social media as public, many social media users still post personally sensitive information on their unlocked accounts. Just because the public can view this information doesn’t mean it’s ethical for the University to monitor it. 

If this sounds like a gross violation of your privacy and an infringement on your First Amendment rights, that’s because it is. A law professor at American University’s Washington College of Law, Andrew Ferguson, told the Dallas Morning News, “That is obviously somewhat chilling for First Amendment freedoms of people who believe in a right to protest and dissent.” This service doesn’t just have the potential to monitor protests and political events, it is actively used to do so by several universities, including UConn. 

The email chains between UConn officials and Social Sentinel reveal that UConn heightened surveillance around numerous political events and protests, using politically charged keywords to increase the sensitivity of Social Sentinel. On Aug. 12, 2017, antifascist activist Heather Heyer was murdered by a neo-Nazi in a terrorist attack in Charlottesville, West Virginia. On Aug. 31, 2017, a vigil was held in her memory at UConn, but unknown to the public, UCPD Deputy Chief Andrew Fournier told Social Sentinel to up the ante. Later in 2017, alt-right firebrand Lucian Wintrich, who has made an appearance on a white nationalist podcast, spoke at an event which UCPD used Social Sentinel to closely monitor. Then in 2018, Ben Shapiro came to speak on campus, and Fourneir again told Social Sentinel to track students’ social media posts for politically charged messages related to the event. UCPD also uses Social Sentinel to track mentions of popular locations around campus, the names of University presidents, and speech regarding UCPD itself. Whether the University intends to or not, by closely monitoring political events and mentions of UConn’s institutions, it ends up putting politically involved students under even greater scrutiny. 

The student body, staff, faculty and local community members deserve to speak freely without fear of being watched by University officials. It is wrong to monitor our social media accounts and other online activity. This is especially alarming to those of us who are politically involved in our communities and critical of the administration making us subject to intensified surveillance. UConn has created a panopticon. All across campus, UConn’s sophisticated security camera system monitors your every move, and has been used by UCPD officers to stalk and harass individuals as recently as 2020. Now we know the spying extends into our personal lives, with private security contractors and UCPD intensively monitoring our online activities. For those who value the rights to privacy and free expression, this is unacceptable. For a university that touts its commitment to human rights, it’s a shame that UConn doesn’t put its supposed values into practice. The surveillance state created at UConn represents the greatest threat to the student body’s most fundamental rights, but it doesn’t have to be this way. 

Following the revelation that the University of North Carolina used surveillance services similar to and including Social Sentinel/Navigate360 to track students’ speech about abortion rights and closely monitor protests, UNC will not be renewing its contract with Navigate360. With enough public pressure and visibility, we may be able to get UConn to drop the service as well. Ending UConn’s contract with Navigate360 would be an important first step to restoring our rights, actually embodying the University’s supposed values, and dismantling the dystopia the state has created here.  

In the meantime if you’re worried about University officials spying on your online activities, take that “UConn 20XX” out of your bio, consider making your social media accounts private, and avoid using University accounts for anything personal. The surveillance state extends well beyond this campus, and we should all begin taking digital privacy and security seriously.

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