The University of Connecticut has been tracking student social media posts using an artificial intelligence tool called Social Sentinel since 2015. The software has been used specifically by UCPD, which has taken action based on Social Sentinel alerts at least three times.
A Dallas Morning News report identified UConn as one of at least 37 colleges using 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 deal with Social Sentinel in 2015. Since then, the contract has been renewed several times, with rates increasing over the years. Social Sentinel was acquired by Navigate360 at the end of 2020.
In 2019, the university signed an agreement to pay up to $19,998 for Social Sentinel for a twelve-month deal ending May 31, 2020. The university renewed that agreement the following year, changing the price to $29,997.
Crime records reveal that UConn police were actively using Social Sentinel/Navigate360 as recently as the spring of 2022.
Social Sentinel/Navigate360 scans social networks for potential threats, then sends alerts to UCPD staff members, sometimes via SMS. UCPD staff members then decide how best to handle the alerts.
Tom Proctor, Social Sentinel’s Customer Success Coordinator, explained how alerts are created in a June 2018 email to Deputy Chief of Police Andrew Fournier. According to Proctor, it starts with every possible public conversation on social media associated with the UConn community.
“What you receive as an alert (which represents 0.3% of activity associated with social media) is what our system has recognized as a potential threat based on the content of the post,” Proctor wrote. “While some of the alerts you receive may not always be actionable, our system detects activity that merits a deeper dive and can potentially take action.”
The Daily Campus obtained the police file for an April 2022 incident in which the 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. The UCPD then obtained the IP address associated with the post and used this information to identify the user and request a health check.
This corresponds to an email from June 10, 2019, in which Sergeant Peter Harris explained how Social Sentinel/Navigate360 alerts were handled.
“If they believe the alert requires further follow-up, they forward the email or text containing the link to the duty supervisor to assign an agent to investigate. Typically, in these cases, the supervisor will generate a case number in our reporting system to document the outcome of the alert,” Harris wrote in the email.
While the April 2022 incident centered on a single threat of self-harm, that’s not the only thing the university used Social Sentinel for.
The UCPD had a list of terms they searched for on social media. These terms included major personalities such as “Tom Katsouleas” or “Susan Herbst” as well as places such as “Gampel” and “Hilltop”.
UConn also used Social Sentinel to track major happenings on campus, especially politically charged ones. UCPD representatives could add and modify terms that the university actively followed as needed.
For example, Fournier emailed Proctor to add “Lucian Wintrich” to the tracked terms on November 27, 2017.
“The next speaker will be hosted by a group of UConn students tomorrow, November 28. Please add their name and affiliated organization to our search terms for monitoring for the next 48 hours. Thank you,” Fournier wrote.
At the conference, Wintrich, an alt-right commentator, and Quinebaug Valley Community College counselor Catherine Gregory were arrested following a physical altercation.
The university also monitored threats at specific events.
“The university is hosting a one-day event (Metanoia) on November 8, 2017 that will focus on anti-racism,” Fournier wrote in an email to Proctor on November 1, 2017. “Please add terms to our account for any threat against this event; with continuous monitoring until November 8th.
The UCPD also requested a follow-up to a speech with right-wing commentator Ben Shapiro, a speech with two former US senators and a candlelight vigil following the violence in Charlottesville, North Carolina.
In a statement to the Daily Campus, university spokeswoman 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 on Twitter and Reddit that may indicate potential threats or security issues,” the statement said.
The statement pointed out that tracked messages are publicly available and could be manually tracked if Social Sentinel was not used.
“Again, it is important to note that the messages are already publicly viewable and do not dive into email accounts, text messaging or private correspondence,” the statement read. “It’s simply a faster, more efficient alternative to manually viewing and flagging items that may need immediate attention to ensure public health and safety.”
While Navigate360 announces a feature that allows universities to monitor private communications such as emails, UConn was clear that this feature has not been rolled out by UCPD.
“The service does not monitor private correspondence, emails, text messages or other communications in which there is a reasonable expectation of privacy,” the statement read.
To this end, the statement said, the number of people who can access the service’s alerts is limited.
“UConn takes additional steps to ensure the responsible and appropriate use of these types of monitoring practices, such as limiting access to a small number of authorized users directly involved in the security of specific events or incidents,” reads the statement from the university.
In a 2019 email, Harris said only he and the guard lieutenants receive text alerts from Social Sentinel/Navigate360. Other emails indicate that Fournier was also receiving text alerts.
In 2021, UConn struck a $1.5 million deal with another tracking service, Securly, on behalf of the Connecticut Education Network, the government office that provides Wi-Fi to K-12 schools and colleges in Connecticut. The agreement specifies the use of Securly services for “Connecticut K-12 Schools and Libraries”.
The university said the intent when using Social Sentinel/Navigate360 is to take a measured approach to social media monitoring.
“UConn is taking a thoughtful and carefully planned approach to leveraging technology to help keep campus safe while respecting the free speech and privacy rights of its students, employees and guests,” it read. in the statement from the university.