Decoding – Technical Legal Insights, Volume 3, Issue 19 | Spilman Thomas & Battle, PLLC

Seven North Carolina universities secretly track social media posts of students and protesters

“Seven North Carolina universities monitor social media platforms to keep tabs on events such as protests or crime, a new report shows.”

Why it matters: Developers of social media monitoring software sell their product to colleges and universities as a tool that scans social media to identify students who may be a danger to themselves or others. But many schools have been using the tools for a different purpose — monitoring student protests. It was recently reported that seven North Carolina public and private universities have been secretly tracking student social media posts related to student protests against abortion debates and other controversial issues. This tracking is seen as the latest in campus security protocols, starting with Blu-ray phones in the 1980s, through CCTV cameras in the 1990s, and then including building access control in the early 2000s. The designers of these social media trackers sidestep privacy concerns by saying they don’t investigate or actively monitor students. They said they were simply monitoring public social media for information related to safety and security. Despite this claim, at least one company, Social Sentinel, has advertised its products to “mitigate” and “deter” student protests. These third-party monitoring companies are also expanding their services to include monitoring student emails sent on school accounts. This kind of student monitoring does raise some concerns. One problem with this technology is that it can stifle free speech for students, because people who know they are being watched are more likely to self-censor. Additionally, these companies are using untested artificial intelligence and are at risk of abuse. Finally, public schools using this service risk violating students’ freedom of speech and constitutional rights to prevent unlawful searches and seizures. While campus safety is paramount, schools need to consider how these tools affect campus culture and students’ rights before using this technology.

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