University Police are Surveilling Student Social Media Accounts for ‘Campus Safety’

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The Associated Press

A new report suggests that universities are spending an upwards of $20,000 on monitoring the private social media accounts of their students.

A report from Campus Safety Magazine revealed that the University of Virginia spends $18,500 per year on monitoring the social media accounts of their students. The university retained a firm called Social Sentinel, which uses software to monitor social media accounts for schools and corporations.

According to Social Sentinel’s website, the firm helps schools and corporations identify students and employees that may pose a threat to their peers.

Critical information that can enhance your ability to identify risks, assess threats, and manage events is being shared—publicly—right now.

Social Sentinel helps safety and security teams better protect their communities and their brands by alerting them to threats shared publicly on social media.

The software allows university police departments to search for certain keywords. In the wake of recent school shootings, university police departments are reaching for new tools to prevent potential violence.

“There are so many potential threats and vague sentences being done online,” said Officer Ben Rexrode of the University of Virginia Police Department “You have to translate the old mentality of ‘see something, say something’ to seeing threats online and reporting them and acting on them if necessary.”

Social Sentinel CEO Gary Margolis left a career in law enforcement to create the social media surveillance firm. Despite the concerns over privacy violations, he compares the Social Sentinel program to a home’s carbon monoxide filter.

“We are akin to a home alarm system or carbon monoxide filter; we are looking for indicators of harm,” he argued.

“We’ve had customers call us and tell us that they’ve prevented a suicide,” he added. “We’ve had customers letting us know they’ve been able to intervene in drug activity and drug sales or identify and address issues during major sporting events. So we’ve had many successes in that regard.”

Some critics are blasting schools for their failure to let students know that their accounts were being monitored. Others are simply advising students to set their social media accounts to “private.”