This letter features reporting from “Tracked: How Colleges Use AI To Monitor Student Protests” by Arijit Douglas Sen and Derêka K. Bennett

Dear Senator James Tedisco,

The use of artificial intelligence (AI) to keep students and schools safe seems like a good and easy idea, right? Well, some colleges thought so, leading them to implement this technology in their school systems. AI has been and is being used to monitor students’ social media posts in order to discover and help prevent harm to individuals and groups of people. A company called Social Sentinel has offered many schools throughout the U.S. their technology for a price of only a few thousand dollars per year. At least 37 colleges have accepted this offer, inducting these sophisticated technologies into their campuses. The article “Tracked: How Colleges Use AI To Monitor Student Protests,” published by the Pulitzer Center and the Dallas Morning News, describes how colleges soon found out that Social Sentinel was not as good as it sounded. 

A few schools in particular have had negative experiences with the use of AI through Social Sentinel’s control. At UNC-Chapel Hill, posts regarding protests over a Confederate statue were illicitly monitored by a Social Sentinel employee. During a protest at a town hall at Kennesaw State University in Georgia, authorities used the technology to track protesters. Both of these scenarios are instances when the AI technology from Social Sentinel has been used to the detriment of basic rights to which everyone is entitled. These basic rights are listed in the First Amendment, and should not be limited or restricted, no matter where or when they are exercised. The technology has also been used to monitor a cheerleader’s posts claiming that North Carolina A&T mishandled her rape complaint, which is concerning for the safety of students, and seems to be counter to the original principles and goals of the company’s proposals.

I attend a smaller school district, but AI has still been implemented for certain roles. If you are connected to the school Internet, administrators have the ability to watch everything that you are currently doing. Also, the school can monitor what you post on social media, and have the authority to use it against you. Because I attend a smaller school, I am not too worried about my social media being looked at, but if I attended a university that used Social Sentinel or a company like it I would feel hesitation to speak what is on my mind in fear it would be used against me. This technology that is meant to keep students safe may just be making them feel uncomfortable.

Instead of using taxpayers’ money for funding Social Sentinel’s use by public colleges and universities, the focus should be more centered on creating resources for students’ mental health. Producing a secure campus and having trust in students will reduce the risk of self-harm or harm to others. If universities choose to fund Social Sentinel or a company like it, they need to put more research into what information they can access and impose limitations on that access. This would allow students to feel comfortable speaking their minds and demonstrating what they stand for. This would not only benefit the schools, but also the community through the presence of trust and reasonable security.

Thank you for your time,

Olivia Davison-Gauss

Olivia Davison-Gauss is a freshman at Galway High School in New York. She is very interested in human rights, which is why she chose to write about human rights pertaining to her generation. She enjoys learning about global issues and researching solutions. In her free time, Olivia loves reading and pursuing her passion of soccer.

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