Duke uses artificial intelligence tool to monitor online threats and denies tracking student activity
Duke was recently identified as one of at least 37 universities that used software capable of analyzing social media and email.
Navigate360 Detect, formerly known as Social Sentinel, is advertised as a “threat detection” service that scans for certain keywords that may indicate harm to individuals or institutions. The company says it’s not designed to monitor protests, but the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and other institutions have used the service to do so, the Dallas Morning News reported. The company also sent in explanations of how the service could be used to monitor campus activism.
Duke’s use of the software was not described in the Dallas Morning News investigation, but the University is mentioned in email exchanges involving schools in the UNC system, and as of 2019, named by Social Sentinel as a school using the service.
Erin Duggan Kramer, associate vice president of academic communications, told the Dallas Morning News in August that the office “wouldn’t comment on that.” Kramer then contacted the newspaper to ask it to omit Duke from the published story, according to an email chain obtained by The Chronicle.
“Duke does not use Social Sentinel to monitor protests or ANY individuals,” Kramer wrote to the Dallas Morning News in September. “He is based in the communications department and a few times a year we get alerts about threats against the university. Please remove us from the article/graphics if possible, it is misleading to suggest that we are using AI to track anything like protests or student activity.
Kramer was out of the office when The Chronicle asked for comment. Chris Simmons, acting vice president for public affairs and government relations, wrote that Social Sentinel is paid for by the Communications Office and the University still uses it.
“I want to be very clear: Duke does not use Social Sentinel to monitor individuals in any way,” Simmons wrote. “If a threat to Duke University or the healthcare system is identified on publicly available social media, that information is assessed by Duke Police for appropriate action.”
Despite the Social Sentinel contract coming from the Office of Communications, documents published by the Dallas Morning News suggest that the Duke University Police Department was the primary point of contact at the University.
A July 2019 email from a Social Sentinel representative to an administrator at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte includes a list of references for the service – one of which was DUPD Deputy Chief Sara-Jane Raines.
That admin then contacted Raines to schedule a time to talk about Social Sentinel, and Raines said she “would be happy to do so,” according to emails obtained by The Chronicle via a public records request. The two discussed availability, and Charlotte’s administrator offered to send out a calendar invite, but The Chronicle received no records of invites or meetings.
The Chronicle reached out to Raines and DUPD leader John Dailey for comment, and Simmons responded on their behalf.
“The service is used to monitor threats of violence involving the campus and the health care system from publicly accessible websites,” Simmons wrote in an email. “The safety of students, staff, faculty and visitors is essential to us.”
Simmons did not respond to follow-up questions about the start of Duke’s contract, whether students have ever been told about the use of Social Sentinel, and any instances in which the service has been used successfully at Duke to identify and/or respond to threats of violence.
Although there is no evidence that Duke uses Social Sentinel to monitor student activity, the University has already been accused of surveillance.
In 2020, the independent organization Palestine Legal accused the University of a “pattern of monitoring and controlling student speech” after a former Duke student was called into several “non-disciplinary meetings” with the Office. student conduct and community standards on social media posts.
Social sentinel in North Carolina
North Carolina State University appears to have been one of the first universities in the state to adopt Social Sentinel, paving the way for other schools to follow.
In April 2015, the chief of the North Carolina State Police Department emailed a Social Sentinel representative regarding a meeting scheduled for that day.
“Just wanted to make sure we’re still ready for 4 p.m. today,” reads the email obtained by the Dallas Morning News. “I have also invited the UNC PD and Duke PD to join us. Duke won’t send anyone, but UNC plans to.
In another email, the chief wrote that he plans to brief other UNC system police chiefs on the service at a conference.
The emails show that Social Sentinel was courting Wake Forest University around the same time the company was in contact with NC State. UNC Chapel Hill adopted the service in 2016, although the school has since announced it will end its contract in October. NC State’s contract also expired in 2018.
By early 2019, Duke had started using it.
In January of the same year, a regional sales manager from Social Sentinel contacted UNC Charlotte for support for service there.
“I appreciate your willingness to help get my information in front of the right people at UNCC,” reads the email obtained by the Dallas Morning News. “As I mentioned, we are currently in partnership with [East Carolina University]Wake Forest, Duke University, and [North Carolina A&T State University] in NC.
Charlotte ultimately decided not to use Social Sentinel due to a lack of funds, the Dallas Morning News reported.
Milla Surjadi contributed reporting.
Get The Chronicle straight to your inbox
Subscribe to our weekly newsletter. Cancel anytime.
| Digital Strategy Director
Nadia Bey is Trinity’s Senior Director and Digital Strategy for The Chronicle’s 118th volume. She was previously editor of volume 117.