The independent news organization of Duke University

Duke uses AI tool to monitor online threats, denies tracking student activity

Duke was recently identified as one of at least 37 universities that used software capable of scanning social media and emails. 

Navigate360 Detect, formerly known as Social Sentinel, is advertised as a “threat detection” service that looks 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 used the service to do that, the Dallas Morning News reported. The company also sent explainers on 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 UNC system schools, and as early as 2019, named by Social Sentinel as a school using the service. 

Erin Duggan Kramer, associate vice president of university communications, told the Dallas Morning News in August that the office “wouldn’t comment on this.” Kramer later contacted the newspaper asking them to omit Duke from the published article, according to an email chain obtained by The Chronicle.

“Duke does not use Social Sentinel to monitor protest or ANY individuals,” Kramer wrote to the Dallas Morning News in September. “It’s based out of the communications department and a few times a year we receive alerts re: threats to the university. Please remove us from the article/graphics if possible, it’s misleading to imply we use AI to track anything like protests or student activity.”

Kramer was out of office when The Chronicle reached out for comment. Chris Simmons, interim vice president for public affairs and government relations, wrote that Social Sentinel is paid for by the Office of Communications and that 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 Health System is identified on publicly available social media, that information is evaluated by Duke Police for appropriate action.”

Despite the Social Sentinel contract originating in the Office of Communications, documents published by the Dallas Morning News suggest the Duke University Police Department was the primary point of contact at the University.

A July 2019 email sent by 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 whom was DUPD Assistant Chief Sara-Jane Raines. 

That administrator then reached out to 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 through a public records request. The two discussed availability and the Charlotte administrator offered to send a calendar invite, but The Chronicle did not receive records of any invitations or meetings.

The Chronicle reached out to Raines and DUPD Chief John Dailey for comment, and Simmons responded on their behalf. 

“The service is used to monitor for threats of violence involving the campus and the health system from publicly available websites,” Simmons wrote in an email. “The safety of students, staff, faculty and visitors is critical to us.” 

Simmons did not answer follow-up questions about when Duke’s contract began, whether students were ever informed of the use of Social Sentinel and any instances in which the service has successfully been used at Duke to identify and/or respond to threats of violence. 

Although there’s no proof of Duke using Social Sentinel to monitor student activity, the University has been accused of surveillance before.

In 2020, independent organization Palestine Legal accused the University of “a pattern of monitoring and policing of student speech” after a Duke alumna was called into multiple “non-disciplinary meetings” with the Office of Student Conduct and Community Standards over 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, setting the stage for other schools to follow.

In April 2015, the then-chief of the NC State Police Department emailed a Social Sentinel representative regarding a scheduled meeting that day.

“Just wanted to make sure we are still set for 4 p.m. today,” the email obtained by the Dallas Morning News reads. “I’ve also invited the UNC PD and Duke PD to join us. Duke is not going to send anyone, but UNC is planning to.”

In another email, the chief wrote that he planned to tell other UNC system police chiefs about the service at a conference. 

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, though the school has since announced that it will be ending their contract in October. NC State’s contract also lapsed in 2018.

By early 2019, Duke had started using it.

In January of that year, a regional sales director for Social Sentinel initiated contact with UNC Charlotte to drum up support for the service there.

“I appreciate your willingness to help get my info in front of the right people at UNCC,” the email obtained by the Dallas Morning News reads. “As I mentioned, we’re currently partnered 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. 


Nadia Bey | Digital Strategy Director

Nadia Bey is a Trinity senior and digital strategy director for The Chronicle’s 118th volume. She was previously managing editor for Volume 117.

Discussion

Share and discuss “Duke uses AI tool to monitor online threats, denies tracking student activity” on social media.