At least 36 colleges nationwide have used Social Sentinel, a social media monitoring service founded by two campus police chiefs, in the past seven years. The company says its service uses sophisticated AI to alert schools to potential suicides and shootings and has long claimed it isn’t a surveillance or monitoring tool. But tens of thousands of pages of documents, obtained from dozens of colleges around the country, along with interviews with former company employees, school officials, activists, and experts reveal a system largely ineffective for its stated purpose and one that was repeatedly used to surveil protests and activists. In recent years, the company also seems to be charting a new path by offering colleges and universities the ability to monitor their students’ private emails.
Social Sentinel’s widespread use represents the growing use of opaque “black box” artificial intelligence products by campuses, often without any knowledge or input from students, parents, or members of the public. Experts say it raises sharp questions about how much authority colleges should have to monitor their students and what impacts that surveillance can have.