FAU officials tight-lipped on the use of social media monitoring software

Data shows FAU used a software designed to monitor social media exchanges and protest activity.


Photo courtesy of FAU police’s Facebook

Savannah Peifer and Michael Castillo

70% of U.S. citizens believe the federal government is monitoring their internet activity per a 2017 poll from the Pew Research Center. It turns out, your university may be doing it as well. 

An investigation from the Dallas Morning News revealed FAU to be one of 37 universities utilizing Social Sentinel, a social media and email scanning software.

Data provided by GovSpend, a Boca Raton-based company that monitors government spending, confirms the university’s usage from 2016 to 2020. The most recent GovSpend update does not provide an end date, and multiple university officials have not responded to requests for comment. For that reason, it is unclear if the university still uses the software. 

Social Sentinel

Social Sentinel, an application  of Navigate360, a holistic safety solutions company, labels itself as a scanning software. This software scans social media exchanges and emails within a defined radius for key terms and alerts university officials to potentially threatening situations. 

A Social Sentinel staff member initially replied to the UP’s request for an interview, but did not respond after UP reporters specified their questions. Company founder Gary Margolis declined to speak with the UP. When reached via Linkedin, CEO Jean-Paul Guilbault, directed the UP to the company’s press email, but did not answer further questions.

Typically, the software is used by campus police departments, according to Arijit Sen, a computational journalist for the Dallas Morning News who worked on the 2022 investigation.

The company states the software is compatible with Microsoft Office365, Twitter, Instagram, Reddit, Facebook, Gmail, and G-Suite. Police Chief Sean Brammer did not respond to requests for comment. 

Citing a state statute tied to fire safety and security concerns, the university denied public records requests for correspondence between Board of Trustees members about Social Sentinel. The university also denied a public records request for the contract between the university and Social Sentinel citing the same state statute.

University spokesperson Joshua Glanzer did not respond to multiple emails requesting for comment. Pierce Kennamer, student body president and Board of Trustees member, told the UP he was unaware of the softwares existence entirely and does not know if the university uses it. 

Protest Monitoring

Navigate360 officials have historically denied the software’s ability to monitor protests and demonstrations on or near campuses. A document from the company, provided by the Dallas Morning News outlines the monitoring feature. 

The company advertises this feature as a way to “mitigate” and “forestall” riots.

Sen says the company does not differentiate between riots and protests. 

“They’re like, ‘Oh, well, we monitor for riots but not peaceful protests.’ Right, but they don’t really define the difference between those two things,” Sen said. 

Jason Kelley, the assistant director of digital strategy for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit for defending digital privacy, says the lack of definition can be dangerous for different communities. 

“They also don’t have a great ability to understand nuance and context. This means people’s comments may be interpreted incorrectly. It can also lead to more police interactions, which have a history of endangering marginalized populations,” Kelley wrote in an email to the UP. 

Jake Wiener, legal counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a Washington, D.C.-based public interest research center that studies web privacy, agreed with Kelley, explaining that software struggles to understand context. 

“You have a technology that makes it really easy to identify people but makes it very difficult to sort the leads of people who are engaged in harmful behavior from not harmful but potentially illegal behavior,” he said.

Sen claims the use of the term “riot mitigation” increased after the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020. 

“Right after a lot of the George Floyd protests were happening, they sent out a marketing email. I think this was in June or July of 2020. And the marketing email was titled something like the Social Sentinel monitor for riots,” Sen explained. 

According to the Daily Tar Heel, a student-run news organization covering the University of North Carolina, UNC utilized the software in order to monitor pro-choice demonstrations and protests around the campus’s Silent Sam statue. 

Leah Ballou, geomatics engineering major at FAU,  believes universities need to separate social media and academic efforts. 

“I feel like as a university that shouldn’t be their first focus, a student’s social media presence. If it includes protesting or not, it doesn’t necessarily mean they have to support what that person is posting,” Ballou said. 

Social Media and Email Scanning

Sen explained the software can also monitor private email accounts and was advertised to universities. It is unclear if universities use this feature. 

Kelley said universities often implement the software with pure intentions but it can often have a negative impact on students. 

“While these tools are generally installed in a good faith effort to protect students from cyberbullying, potential shooters, or to find help for people experiencing suicidal thoughts, they often intrude on people’s ability to comment privately online,” Kelley wrote.

He also argues students should not have to be concerned about their private interactions being shared or scanned because it may limit the amount they want to share.

“Students shouldn’t have to be hyper-aware of the places and ways that they share their thoughts online, but these sorts of monitoring tools force them to do so, and that’s terrible. We call that ‘the chilling effect’—people who might normally speak out on a topic are chilled into being silent,” Kelley wrote.

Wiener argues this fear of monitoring may have students move from mainstream social media to lesser known outlets that may radicalize them.

“I think it’s dangerous for schools to push students out of certain social media sites and give them an incentive to join more obscure and potentially more dangerous social media sites,” Wiener said. 

Sen says most of the universities he spoke to were dissatisfied with the software and felt they paid more than they would like to the results.

“Most of the stuff it’s flagging, it’s not really very good,” he said.

Screenshot provided by GovSpend

According to the GovSpend data, FAU paid $18,000 per year for five years– a total of $90,000.

Kelley said the best way to ensure you are not being monitored is to turn your social media private. Wiener agreed, but explained that students should voice their concerns to the administration to remove the software. 

“Much of the time schools don’t try to clearly communicate the types of surveillance tools they use. This is often less about secrecy than about bureaucracy. But there is a growing awareness that students do not like these tools and may push back if it’s made public, so sometimes I think they are kept secretive intentionally,” Kelley wrote. 

Savannah Peifer is the editor-in-chief for the University Press. For more information regarding this or other stories DM her on instagram @ginger.savvy or email her at [email protected].

Michael Castillo is a contributing writer for the University Press. For more information regarding this or other stories email him at [email protected].