ASHEVILLE - At the cost of over $30,000, UNC Asheville contracted with Social Sentinel, a company known for monitoring university students' social media posts and emails, for three years.
Since UNCA first signed its three-year contract, Social Sentinel's AI has been acquired by a different company, Navigate360, and rebranded. The UNCA contract expired June 30.
The Dallas Morning News, in partnership with the Pulitzer Center’s AI Accountability Network, first reported on the company's relationship with UNCA and dozens of other universities in a Sept. 20 investigation. According to the report, Social Sentinel advertised itself as a safety tool to identify nascent threats, but police departments used it to monitor student protests and demonstrations.
According to that reporting, in one document sent to UNCA, Social Sentinel described how its services could "provide important insight about crowd size and climate, resulting in possible strategy adjustments including deployment of officers."
The university did not respond to questions from the Citizen Times about whether Social Sentinel was ultimately used to monitor protests and demonstrations, but it did provide a contract with the company and confirm that it was used to monitor social media posts.
"UNC Asheville began a three-year subscription for the Social Sentinel service on July 1, 2019," Crissa Sinkovic, a spokesperson for the university, wrote in an email to the Citizen Times. "The UNC Asheville Department of Public Safety explored Social Sentinel as a potential mechanism to improve its university risk mitigation strategies. The subscription agreement expired on June 30, 2022, and was not renewed."
The university "was interested in Social Sentinel because of its social media scanning and monitoring capabilities as part of general risk mitigation strategies," another spokesperson, Chief University Communication and Marketing Officer Michael Strysick, told the Citizen Times. "I believe only three-year contracts were available at the time and, as you can see, the contract came to an end this summer, on June 30, 2022. Even before Mr. (Ari) Sen's story appeared, the decision was made to not renew the contract. While I only started at UNC Asheville on September 7, 2022, I agree that the service is not useful."
The Dallas Morning News report says that Social Sentinel also advertised email-monitoring capabilities to UNCA.
The university did not bite on that offer, Strysick said.
"To be clear, this was a social media monitoring service for UNC Asheville, not email, intended to support safety and risk management issues," he said in another email.
According to the contract, signed by then-UNCA Police Chief Eric Boyce and Associate Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs Nancy Yeager, UNCA paid the company $10,500 for its services three years in a row, beginning in 2019.
Strysick, when asked if students were ever informed of the company's contract, did not respond. Most UNCA students who spoke with the Citizen Times were ambivalent or undecided when the AI and its purpose were described to them, often noting the publicity of social media posts and safety concerns. But, universally, none had heard of Social Sentinel or knew about UNCA's contract with the company.
"I've never heard of that company at all," junior Elizabeth Grissom, said, adding that it sounded like an "easy way to target people."
Navigate360 did not respond to questions about its services on Sept. 29.
Ryan Oehrli is the breaking news and social justice reporter for the Asheville Citizen Times. Send tips to email@example.com.
This article originally appeared on Asheville Citizen Times: UNCA bought, used controversial social media monitoring software