A report by VTDigger has revealed that five schools in Vermont have hired a Burlington-based firm to track the online activities of their students.
VTDigger sent a public records request to all 52 superintendents in Vermont asking if any social media monitoring contracts had been signed. Of the 52, five stated that they either had current or prior contracts with Social Sentinel.
Using keyword-based algorithms and machine learning, Social Sentinel scans social media posts within a certain geographic area looking for any indication that a student is in distress or could hurt others. If something is flagged then school officials are immediately alerted.
Another eight superintendents stated that they had contracts with security vendors including Lightspeed Systems and Bark, to track activity on district devices and school-sponsored emails. Social Sentinel can also scan student emails for an additional fee.
By monitoring students’ online activity, the aim is to prevent and reduce issues like self-harm, teen suicide, mass shootings, cyber-bullying and other violence.
GoGuardian is another popular company utilised by middle schools in the Burlington school district, where by tabs are kept on what students watch, read and search on the district devices.
In an interview, Social Sentinel founder Gary Margolis said:
“We built a technology that actually helps prevent bad things from happening. By giving information that can give context to what’s going on, in a way that respects privacy, and all I do is get questioned by you and folks in the media about privacy issues.”
He added “It’s mind-bogglingly frustrating.”
Privacy advocates have raised their concerns about the use of surveillance technology on students, with many emphasising the issue of racial bias and profiling.
“Experience shows that expanded police presence in schools and online surveillance of students does real harm, undermining student privacy and resulting in rights violations that disproportionately impact students of color,” James Duff Lyall, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont, said in a statement.
Social Sentinel maintains that it doesn’t profile students, and triggers are detected by its algorithms.
“We’re not surveilling, we’re not monitoring. We’re not following,” Margolis said. “Monitoring is when I’m paying attention to a specific individual. Your communications. You.”
Most complaints about social media monitoring are that officials are bombarded with irrelevant information. Brian Schaffer, principle of Lamoille Union High, stated that when contracting Social Sentinel in 2015, the majority of daily alerts were regarding irrelevant posts.
“It wasn’t as functional as I had hoped it to be,” he said.
Margolis added that Social Sentinel’s algorithm is constantly improving, and the number of false positives have reduced.
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