UConn expenditures on student surveillance set a bad precedent

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A person using their phone. A recent Daily Campus report revealed that the University of Connecticut has been surveilling students through various social media platforms. Photo by picjumbo.com/Pexels

A Daily Campus report released Monday, Oct. 3 revealed that the University of Connecticut has surveilling students through social media from 2015 all the way to spring of 2022. According to the article, which was tipped off by a broader exposé by the Dallas Morning Star, UConn has spent at least $40,000 over seven years using various artificial intelligence softwares to notify the UConn Police Department of student social media activity, ranging from mentions of locations and personnel on campus to controversial speakers and peaceful demonstrations to self-harm.  

The Daily Campus Editorial Board firmly believes that massive expenditures on surveilling students as well as relaying student social media data to UCPD sets a dangerous precedent for the privacy and security of the student body in the future. Students should never have concerns over their civil rights to privacy, association and expression, but UConn’s surveillance practices have now prompted these legitimate worries. 

The investment into Social Sentinel, the principal service that UCPD used to monitor students’ social media data, is significant. The Daily Campus has acquired over 200 pages of correspondence between UCPD officials and liaisons from Social Sentinel highlighting tens of thousands of dollars in contracts and contract renewals, as well as location data of “Crowd Sourced events,” referring to student demonstrations ranging from a vigil for victims of neo-Nazi violence to counterprotests to lectures given by right-wing public figures such as Lucian Wintrich and Ben Shapiro.  

It is possible that the university utilized Social Sentinel and other surveillance programs because they perceived it as a sort of insurance policy against unrest on campus; however, the methods by which UConn and UCPD attempted to prevent that unrest are extremely telling of their priorities. At a university which is “committed to building a safe and inclusive community for all its members,” according to the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion mission statement, the university chose not to exclude speakers whose rhetoric is actively harmful to marginalized communities, but to surveil and police students with legitimate grievances instead.  

The use of third-party AI to track students speaks to a broader pattern at UConn as well — that of further turning to neoliberalism, or the doctrine of privatizing parts, if not the whole of the institution and raising costs to keep its finances balanced. While problematic, UConn’s stint with Social Sentinel is far from the most notable example of neoliberalism hurting the university. In fact, in September, UConn violated its contract with the Connecticut Employees Union Independent by displacing 20 union workers with privately-contracted custodians and moving the former group away from the athletics facilities they originally maintained. According to the union, a greater concentration of privatized jobs at UConn hurts labor’s bargaining power. This would effectively empower UConn to engage in further privatization, ultimately harming the representation and job security of the workers who care for campus facilities.  

The Editorial Board has previously discussed UConn’s dependency on weapons defense manufacturers for grants and funding. Not only do UConn’s increasingly tangled relations with the private war industry increase privatization, but it negates any positive human rights or sustainability impacts the university claims to have.  

It should not be discounted that surveilling students presents legitimate and dangerous violations of privacy. According to the Daily Campus report, Social Sentinel flagged a post on Twitter in which a student expressed thoughts of self-harm, allowing UCPD to locate them through the IP address and request a wellness check. Even if the intention was to mitigate a threat to student safety, UConn and UCPD’s inability to respond in a way that is not carceral but instead trauma-informed demonstrates the potential of AI surveillance to actually exacerbate mental health crises. 

The university providing UCPD with student social media data is a valid cause for concern for UConn students and organizations. With the ever-relevant possibility of turnover within the administration and UCPD, students, faculty and staff have little way of ever knowing if the use of programs like Social Sentinel will expand, contract or rightfully end as new personnel come and go. While the past several years of surveillance should teach students and organizations to take digital security seriously, that should not be a burden the community has to shoulder. UConn must take concrete and transparent steps to end the transmission of students’ social media information to UCPD.

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