Decoded – Technology Law Insights, Volume 3, Issue 19 | Spilman Thomas & Battle, PLLC

Seven North Carolina Colleges Secretly Tracked Social Media Posts of Students, Protesters

“A new report shows seven North Carolina universities monitored social media platforms to keep an eye on things like protests or crimes.”

Why this is important: Developers of social media surveillance software sell their products to colleges and universities as a tool that scans social media to identify students who may be a danger to themselves or others. But a number of schools have been using these tools for a different purpose — surveillance against student protests. It recently was reported that seven North Carolina colleges, both public and private, have been secretly tracking students’ social media posts in relation to protests by students regarding the abortion debate and other controversial issues. This tracking is seen as the latest in campus security protocols that started with blue light phones in the 1980s, moving onto CCTV cameras 1990s, and then included building access controls in the early 2000s. Designers of these social media trackers skirt around privacy concerns by saying that they are not investigating or actively surveilling students. They say that they are only monitoring public social media to identify safety and security related information. Despite this assertion, at least one company, Social Sentinel, has promoted its product to “mitigate” and “forestall” student protests. These third party monitoring companies are also expanding their services to include monitoring student emails sent on school accounts. This student monitoring does raise a number of concerns. One issue with this technology is that it may stifle students’ freedom of expression because people who know they are being surveilled are more likely to self-censor. Additionally, these companies are using AI that is untested, and has a risk of being abused. Finally, the public schools that use this service run the risk of violating their students’ Constitutional rights to free speech and protections against illegal search and seizure. While safety on campus is paramount, schools need to consider how these tools may impact campus culture and students’ rights before utilizing this technology.

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