North Texas Daily

North Texas institutions use online surveillance to monitor students

North Texas institutions use online surveillance to monitor students

North Texas institutions use online surveillance to monitor students
October 20
12:15 2022

North Texas institutions and school districts have used monitoring technology to surveil student online activity, including UNT which used the software from 2015 to 2018.

Social Sentinel, now under Navigate 360, was created in 2014 with the purpose of surveilling social media for students at risk of harming themselves or others. However, a Dallas Morning News article published last month said institutions have used the service outside of that purpose.

“We did find that [Social Sentinel] had been used [by universities] to monitor protests and demonstrations,” said Ari Sen, one of the writers of the DMN article.

UNT purchased a three-year contract with Social Sentinel for $45,000. Police Chief Ed Reynolds said the department did not renew the contract because they “found it to be redundant” to the work the department was doing to monitor social media.

“UNT’s primary focus was looking for individuals who were potentially using their social media as a cry for help and needed referral to [the] UNT CARE team to intervene and prevent self-harm,” Reynolds said in an email to the North Texas Daily. “UNT Police did not use the service to monitor specific protests, groups, individuals or use it to make arrests.”

Multiple universities in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex have used Social Sentinel over the years. The only institution in North Texas still using the service is North Central Texas College.

The Denton Campus of the North Texas Central College on Oct. 17, 2022. Photo by Ismael Belkoura

Nicole Shaw, the current chief of police for NCTC, told Sen that their police department uses Social Sentinel to monitor protests.

Reynolds and Shaw said their departments never used Social Sentinel to monitor emails. Shaw also said surveillance past what is publicly available would only be accessible to the department through a search warrant.

James Fitch, the former NCTC Police chief, purchased the software in 2016 and the department has renewed its contract with Social Sentinel every year since then. 

“We are such a small department that having dedicated personnel just to check social media was absolutely not feasible,” Shaw said. “So, this company does that for us checking the social media sites, letting us know of some keywords that might be of interest.”

Shaw also said Social Sentinel has not been used in their Denton County campuses but the service has been used elsewhere.

Texas school districts also use these monitoring services. Alongside Social Sentinel, some of the most widely used services include Securly, GoGuardian and Gaggle. “More than 200 districts statewide have used these technologies” in the past six years, according to a DMN article

A recent example would be Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, which experienced one of the deadliest school shootings in the United States. Uvalde ISD employed Social Sentinel from 2019 to 2020.

Social Sentinel and similar software are marketed with the goal of student safety. However, these services have been criticized for a lack of evidence regarding their effectiveness. What the service is being used for is also generally unknown to both students and parents.

“Those sorts of services here in North Texas might be used for email monitoring, Google Docs monitoring there are some that even allow the teacher to see what a student is doing on their Chromebook remotely,” Sen said.

Currently, Krum ISD and Ponder ISD use Gaggle, and Denton ISD used the service in 2008, but it is unclear whether the service is still in use. Denton ISD did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

“Oftentimes, these policies are very vague,” Sen said. “They’re like one of those forms that they send home and you sign because it’s dense language and they don’t mention these services in particular. We were able to determine that many of these school districts were not telling people affirmatively that this is the kind of service they’re using.”

Featured Illustration by Zach Parmer

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Ismael M. Belkoura

Ismael M. Belkoura

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