With the country still faltering with the mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas, officials are fighting for more ways to stop mass shootings – and facing difficult truths about how ineffective many of our existing tools really are. Digital monitoring technology was under separate scrutiny after reporting revealed that the Uvalde school district had experimented with a service called Social Sentinelwhich claims to identify and alert schools to threats based on social media conversations.
It is an increasingly common service as schools struggle with the chaos of social media, often causing serious privacy and speech concerns along the way. Systems like Social Sentinel promise to give a genuine understanding of the huge amount of information posted on social media on a daily basis by analyzing the noise signal so that educators are informed of threats before damage occurs. For these firms, it can be a lucrative business – but often, they threaten superficial understandings of available data, providing few benefits to outweigh the privacy harms.
For privacy activists, the lack of evidence for the effectiveness of the technology means that there are no sufficient reasons for the potential violations of privacy that come with its use. Hye Jung Han, a researcher at Human Rights Watch who specializes in children’s rights, said The Edge that using surveillance technology on children could cause unjustifiable harm:
“Could you imagine schools using toxic materials to build classrooms, even if it didn’t meet any safety standards? No, ”said Han. “Similarly, using unproven, untested surveillance technologies in children, without first checking whether they are safe to use, exposes children to an unacceptable risk of harm.”
Multiple requests for comment sent to Navigate360 – which acquired Social Sentinel in 2020 – went unanswered.
The Uvalde school district has been confirmed to have purchased Social Sentinel monitoring capability in 2019–2020, although it is unclear whether the subscription was still active during the shooting. However, even if it were, the technology would not be likely to mark any of the shooter’s posts. Now there are many reports of activity around the shooter’s online activity: he allegedly did so often threats to young women and girls through chatty apessent pictures of guns to acquaintances, and reportedly discussed doing the school shooting in an Instagram chat. But Social Sentinel is only capable of monitoring public posts and would not have access to any content shared in private messages.
At the same time, there are serious privacy concerns with the software. In 2019, the Brennan Center for Justice outlined a a range of concerns about civil and human rights stemming from expanded social media monitoring in K-12 schools, among them the questionable effectiveness of the technology in combination with a tendency to disproportionately influence students from minority communities. In the same year, reporting from Education Week also covered the dramatic expansion of digital surveillance in schools, highlighting the large number of false positives generated by Social Sentinel technology. (Alerts were reportedly triggered by tweets about the film Mark Wahlberg, Shooter and by a student pleased their credit score “increased,” among other things.)
Of all the U.S. states, Texas has been the most enthusiastic about the use of digital surveillance for schoolchildren. 2021 survey of La Dallas Morning News found that no state has more school districts contracting with digital watch companies than Texas. But of the Texas districts that made these contracts, the results were apparently mixed: a number of school districts that paid for Social Sentinel told the Morning News that they declined to renew contracts, describing a service that provided few easy alarms or marked mostly insignificant information.
But while Social Sentinel promotes the ability to monitor a wide range of platforms, there is some suggestion that its surveillance capabilities are dictated more by the accessibility of data sources than by their importance. Customer presentation of the company shared by the EFF lists a range of social media for monitoring, including Instagram, YouTube, Vimeo, Flickr, Tumblr, WordPress and even Meetup.
Data acquired by BuzzFeed News This was confirmed by data obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, which showed that the company was strongly inclined to Twitter monitoring. Of the 1,206 Social Sentinel alerts provided to BuzzFeed98 percent (1,180) related to tweets – although Instagram, YouTube, and even Facebook are more widely used by younger demographics. But Twitter conventions – where the vast majority of posts are publicly viewable, even unintentionally – means that it is relatively easier to monitor by providing a wealth of data on social media that can be assimilated by companies that want to increase their surveillance credentials.
To a large extent, the success of social media monitoring programs depends on how few choices school officials have. As more and more young people’s social lives are stretched into the digital realm, school employees are realizing that they need at least some understanding of their students ’online activities to fulfill their caring duty to them. Dealing with cyberbullying is recognized as a major challenge for teachers and has been recent noted by the UN as a major concern of parents whose children use the internet. Mental health advocates have long emphasized the negative effects of social media on self-esteem, while other internet harms like revenge porn are also sadly part of the lives of young people online.
Into this landscape have come a range of companies pledging to protect the well-being of children and adolescents through a range of monitoring services that will monitor their digital lives: Social Sentinel is a major player, with Gaggle and Securly often cited as top alternatives.
Although the effectiveness of services like Social Sentinel is contested, investors have supported social media monitoring companies to the tune of tens of millions of dollars, betting on the longevity of digital surveillance as a feature of the educational landscape. Despite the objections of critics, the perception of social monitoring as a high-tech, relatively inexpensive security solution has proven to be attractive to school districts across the country. Until schools can be safe by other means – such as urgently needed gun control legislation – it seems likely that the expansion of surveillance technology will continue.