ASU is just one of many public colleges and universities across the nation that have employed a technology tool branded and used to scan social media platforms for potential threats to the safety and well-being of entire campuses.
From Dec. 31, 2016, through Dec. 31, 2020, the University and the ASU Police Department were contracted with Social Sentinel, now called Navigate360 Detect. According to ASU's contract with Social Sentinel obtained by The State Press through a public records request, the University shelled out $45,500 per year for use of the service. A Dallas Morning News investigation into how colleges used the artificial intelligence to monitor student protests found at least 37 colleges have used Social Sentinel since 2015.
According to the contract, the University could use the technology to pull together public social media and blog posts and examine them for potential threats to public safety and security. By signing the contract, the University agreed not to use the technology or any reports produced from its use to access social media data that was not already publicly available.
"As specified in the expired contract, the software was meant to be used solely to aggregate and assess publicly available social media and blog streams for potential threats to security, public safety, harm, self-harm or acts of violence," said ASU PD spokesperson Adam Wolfe in an email Thursday. "Our most significant priority is the safety of students, and the university community at large."
The Dallas Morning News reported the story first on Tuesday. "As more students have embraced social media as a digital town square to express opinions and organize demonstrations, many college police departments have been using taxpayer dollars to pay for Social Sentinel's services to monitor what they say," the story said.
The Dallas Morning News' investigation, using thousands of pages of emails, marketing materials from colleges, contracts and interviews with school officials and campus police, found that "despite publicly saying its service was not a surveillance tool, Social Sentinel representatives promoted the tool to universities for 'mitigating' and 'forestalling' protests."
The company's current CEO J.P. Guilbault told The Dallas Morning News, "the word protest is not even in our engines."
During the time the University was using the service, hundreds of protesters were gathering in downtown Phoenix in summer 2020, joining nationwide calls for justice for George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man killed by police in Minneapolis.
Later that year, students protested on campus to demand a Multicultural Center at ASU and for ASU’s police department to be defunded.
Nothing in documents obtained by The State Press thus far has indicated anything about ASU PD using the technology to monitor protests. A records request for internal ASU PD communication about use of the technology relating to protests has not been filled.
Wolfe said ASU PD uses tips from the ASU community through the LiveSafe phone application, direct messages, phone calls, information from other law enforcement agencies, active patrolling and other methods to stay informed about potential threats.
"While under contract with Social Sentinel, ASUPD would receive email alerts highlighting publicly available posts featuring keywords related to public safety at the university," Wolfe said in the statement. "The department did not have the interest or ability to monitor individual social media pages, and never received any information that wasn't publicly available."
The University, like many others across the country, has used a combination of artificial intelligence monitoring software programs in the name of campus safety and academic integrity.
In May 2021, ASU added Honorlock as one of three options for remote exam proctoring to prevent cheating. The technology is meant to catch students accessing exam-related materials on other devices and removes information from the web.
The University paid just under $4.5 million for five years of the service, which is experienced differently by each student based on their professor's preferences.
An Ohio federal district court decided on Aug. 22 that room scans during online test proctoring were invasive and violated the Fourth Amendment, and therefore unconstitutional. The decision named Honorlock as a service using room scans; an ASU spokesperson said the University is reviewing its online proctoring policies.
Experts who have spoken to The State Press in the past and who are quoted in the Dallas Morning News' investigation have said surveillance and collecting information, even if it is posted publicly, could violate students' privacy and free speech rights.
Edited by Greta Forslund, Wyatt Myskow and Kristen Apolline Castillo.
Piper Hansen is the digital editor-in-chief at The State Press, overseeing all digital content. Joining SP in Spring 2020, she has covered student government, housing and COVID-19. She has previously written about state politics for The Arizona Republic and the Arizona Capitol Times and covers social justice for Cronkite News.