Modern field guide to security and privacy

The secretive industry of social media monitoring

Schools and police turn to private firms to help address school violence, but measuring their success is nearly impossible.

Erick Montes

It was midafternoon on a Brooklyn college campus when an unexpected phone call sent a chill through the school. The caller warned that a student, shortly before, posted the sort of message that every campus feared – one that threatened mass murder at the school.

"I sit in class and think about how I would kill each person," the student tweeted. Each person would die, he wrote, in their "own special way."

The caller was not a cop, a campus security guard, or even a student. He was an employee of an obscure eight-year-old company called GEOCOP that had no ties to the school.

GEOCOP, short for Geospatial Common Operating Picture, is the oldest of three social media monitoring companies that have gained momentum in the wake of the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary school, when a gunman killed 20 children and six adults before fatally shooting himself. In the wake of that tragedy, many schools and law enforcement agencies are searching for ways to more effectively detect and prevent school violence before it happens. Catering to law enforcement and school officials, the companies use a combination of open-source feeds, knowledge of school communities, and intelligence strategies gained from military and law enforcement experience.

That incident two years ago at New York City College of Technology, a City University of New York (CUNY) school, illustrates both the promise and the pitfalls of this cottage industry.

On one level, it was a success for GEOCOP. The school eventually confirmed that GEOCOP was legitimate and called the police. The student, Bishoy Elgawly, then an 18-year-old Staten Island resident attending the school, was arrested and charged with second-degree aggravated harassment and second-degree harassment, according to local media reports. Mr. Elgawly did not respond to multiple requests for comment, and his records are currently sealed.

Yet an examination of GEOCOP’s records and history raises questions about the company’s effectiveness, and the ability of this nascent industry to address school violence. The effectiveness of the social media monitoring firms is nearly impossible to measure. False alarms, the firms’ opaque  business and tracking practices, and a lack of legal guidelines for how the companies track and monitor student communications has put privacy advocates on edge.

“We believe that social media monitoring does not foster a hospitable school environment,” said Brendan Hamme, staff attorney at the southern California branch of the American Civil Liberties Union. “It breeds an environment of distrust between youth and teachers and administrators. And there are far more efficacious ways of getting to the cause of the issue than spying on students.”

An examination of these firms’ business records, promotional materials, and contract bids, along with interviews with company officials, school administrators, and privacy experts, reveals a secretive industry that jealously guards its tradecraft, revenue, and even their physical location.

A ticking clock

The call to the CUNY school from GEOCOP came a full hour-and-a-half after the tweet originally appeared. It took another four hours for the school to vet the credibility of GEOCOP and the tweet, partly because the caller’s remarks were so cryptic. The caller refused to provide any identifying information beyond a GEOCOP “agent number.” And GEOCOP’s website – which now redirects to a Twitter feed – provided scant details about the company’s operations.

“What makes us unique is we’re used to operating under the pressure of a clock ticking by seconds,” said Bob Dowling, founder of GEOCOP.

Elgawly’s prior threatening tweets also went undetected. According to screenshots of Elgawly’s tweets taken by the Staten Island Advance, Elgawly tweeted three other threats against the school between October 2012 and the tweet he was arrested for in February 2013. In a November tweet, he threatened to “shoot up my school” if his class was canceled after he traveled to Brooklyn during a storm, and just over a week later, “I think I’m going to snap and shoot up my school.”

When asked about the timeline for the CUNY incident, Mr. Dowling said he could not comment on anything that resulted in law enforcement action, nor confirm details, but speculated that the three earlier tweets could have simply slipped through GEOCOP’s system. According to news reports, Elgawly later told police he was “bored and that [he] wasn’t going to do it.”

Lionel Presume, director of public safety at the New York City College of Technology, headed the school’s response to GEOCOP’s call. Despite the delays in confirming the tweet’s validity, Mr. Presume now considers social media monitoring integral to ensuring safety at his school, though the school district still does not have a contract with any social media monitoring company.

“At that time I didn’t know much, but it is very important,” he said. “On our level, at colleges, it’s very important.”

A perceived need

Social media monitoring is not a new phenomenon. Law enforcement officers have used the practice in recent years to suss out potential threats around large events such as the Republican National Convention, and to track protests such as the Occupy movement. More recently, schools have turned to social media monitoring to head off signs of violence that would otherwise have not been detected.

Because of students’ pervasive use of social media, many schools consider the online world an important indicator of potentially concerning behavior that warrants school attention. According to a Pew Research study on teenage social media use, 75 percent of teens age 13 to 17 have access to a smartphone, and more than half log into social media accounts multiple times a day. The most popular sites for teens are Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter.

Social media posts are increasingly surfacing after incidents of large-scale school violence, which has gained more media coverage in recent years. In cases such as Ohio’sChardon High School shootingin 2012, media outlets pointed to social media posts linked to the shooter as an indication that there were warning signs. Just this week, an Emory College student was arrested for making “terroristic threats” after posting on Yik Yak about planning to shoot people at her school.

Duncan Scott/The News-Herald/AP
T.J. Lane was convicted of killing three students at Chardon High School in February 2012. He's seen here at his sentencing in March 2013.

To address violence, schools often create guidelines to help them assess threats and bolster safety practices. As early as 1999, theDepartment of Education and the Secret Service joined forces “to develop accurate and useful information about prior school attacks that could help prevent some future ones from occurring.” Virginia has one of the most comprehensive threat assessment guidelines.

In the most recent threat assessment report by the Virginia Department of Education for 2013 to 2014, there were 3,283 reported instances of threats to harm others across 810 public schools – kindergarten through 12th grade. Seven percent of those threats were made via digital communication, but threats were most often delivered orally to the intended victim. Common threats included threats to kill, fight, cut or stab, shoot, or use a weapon. Two-thirds of the comments  were determined not to pose a significant threat of violence. Police charged students with an offense in just 4 percent of cases.

“The likelihood of school violence has been greatly exaggerated,” Dr. Dewey Cornell said in an e-mail.

Dr. Cornell is a forensic clinical psychologist at the University of Virginia. He helped develop the guidelines for those threat assessments, which are implemented in more than 3,000 schools across 18 states. Cornell has studied youth violence prevention since the late 1990s. According to him, while school violence does deserve significant attention, schools are still one of the safest places kids can go.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, between 14 and 34 young people  age 5 to 18 are victims of homicide on – or on their way to or from – school grounds annually, but that’s just 1 to 2 percent of the total of homicides for the same age bracket.

Still, as classroom violence continues to attract media attention and has become a political issue on both the state and national level, many school districts are pursuing services such as social media monitoring, creating a market for GEOCOP and competitors Geo Listening and Social Sentinel.

A secretive industry

On a manicured cul-de-sac in Fairfax, Va., a row of colonial-style houses backs up to wooded area. At about 10 a.m., the neighborhood is quiet. One of these houses is the only known physical location of GEOCOP, according to its corporate records.

The monitoring companies operate quietly, conducting business and their tradecraft with little publicity. They are hesitant to divulge much specific information about how their operations work, and are even secretive about basics like a physical address or number of employees, citing privacy concerns for their business and employees.

GEOCOP has the smallest public presence of the three companies. The official website for used to be a demonstration site of the portal used for operations with no description of the service and just a single contact number – GEOCOP creator Dowling’s number. The site now redirects to the GEOCOP Twitter page. Currently, Dowling said he is rebranding the service and moving away from the name “GEOCOP” because of what he says is inaccurate information in media reports that casts GEOCOP in a negative light.

No address is listed. When asked for a tour of the facility, Dowling declined multiple times, citing a variety of reasons: His employees – many of whom served in the US military – have post-traumatic stress disorder; his employees previously declined having even potential clients tour; and visiting or even him describing the facilities would be a breach of nondisclosure agreements he has with clients.

GEOCOP’s business records list Dowling as the sole incorporator. Though he claims to have multiple domestic and international locations and a Washington office, he refused to disclose the address or neighborhood of any of them. “We’re ubiquitous,” he said. “Ubiquitous meaning that we’re virtual.”

GEOCOP’s competitors are only slightly more transparent. California-based competitor Geo Listening provides promotional materials on its website along with employee testimonials, a contact number and the company’s address in California. Except that isn’t where the company’s operations are located, its CEO Chris Frydrych said, and the credited testimonials are pseudonyms. The Hermosa Beach address is just where their mail is sent; the center of operations is at a different location he won’t disclose.

Social Sentinel is the most forthcoming with general information. The location it lists for its Vermont headquarters is its actual address, its founder Dr. Gary Margolis said. Its leadership section, which lists the company’s management, includes LinkedIn profiles.

Erick Montes

The claims

What the companies do readily divulge, though, is their track records. None claim to be able to prevent school shootings outright, but each emphasizes their services’ ability to detect threats before behavior gets to a point of violence. Many of their clients cite violence prevention as a primary reason they value the monitoring services.  

Dowling stressed that GEOCOP’s services are not restricted to school-related violence. Its services are used, he said, by law enforcement for other kinds of monitoring, such as at events like the 2012 Republican National Convention.

But looking at just the the school violence-specific aspect, Dowling said, GEOCOP has helped detect and alert relevant parties to five school shootings since the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. Those five could have been, by his measures, of equal magnitude.

When pressed for specifics, Dowling balked. He would not confirm involvement in any school shooting cases specifically, saying he was not sure where each was at in the legal process, and also wouldn’t elaborate on his criteria for gauging potential impact. Regarding which law enforcement agencies he contracted with, he cited nondisclosure agreements.

None of the three social media monitoring companies have firm metrics for measuring effectiveness. Mr. Frydrych, Geo Listening’s founder, said the company relies on anecdotes to gauge success. Since Geo Listening employees do not often hear back from schools regarding students they have flagged, they do not have metrics on how often they successfully flag problematic posts.

Likewise, Social Sentinel relies on satisfied customers calling them to report that a flagged social media post helped prevent an issue. His company, he said, gets metrics on how much information is gathered and what kind for each customer, but there isn’t anything kept in aggregate.

This lack of evidence, said Dr. Cornell of the University of Virginia, is insufficient for determining these kind of companies’ role in diminishing school violence. What the social media monitoring companies need, he said, is a set of firm evaluation points to determine the extent to which their services truly make schools safer. “We’ve been too quick to adopt methods and programs in the schools without demanding careful scientific evidence that they will be effective.”  

Without empirical analysis, he said, schools will have to rely on the strength of the company’s pitch, which can be problematic because they are for-profit companies.

“Their contract is based on their ability to provide a valued service, and so if they find nothing, their service might not be regarded as valuable,” Cornell said. “So there’s motivation for them to find things that might be concerning.”

'Twitter on steroids'

Monitoring by GEOCOP begins with a dashboard. It’s a bare-bones interface without much flourish in the way of design, but the page is stacked with drop-down menus. In a demonstration, Dowling walked through how users choose a search term, such as “blow up,” set specific geographic coordinates, such as a radius of a few miles around a school, and scroll through results. Some features, like panels of posts that the user can parse through that update in real time, look similar to commonly used social media management tools such as TweetDeck or HootSuite.

“Basically we’ve put Twitter on steroids,” Dowling said.

According to Dowling, the sources GEOCOP combs include public social media streams with an emphasis on Twitter, geospatial tools like Google Maps, weather data from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, optional satellite imagery, live feeds from open source traffic cameras, YouTube search and local and national news streams. Its software can search Twitter and distinguish between phrases like “I bombed the test” and “I plan to bomb the school” to only flag the latter as a threat.

GEOCOP employees look through multiple real-time feeds, identifying threats and issuing alerts and updates as needed. At the time of press, GEOCOP only contracts with law enforcement agencies, but was in talks with at least one school district about the possibility of a contract during the course of reporting this story.

Dowling’s company previously licensed its software through reseller HMS Technologies, and GEOCOP employees provided customer support. Now, however, Dowling only sells GEOCOP capabilities as a service to customers. HMS Technologies, a West Virginia company, was the exclusive vendor of GEOCOP for a two-year limited run beginning in 2010. Carter Craft, vice president of HMS Technologies, said via e-mail that the company does not sell GEOCOP any longer, and Craft would not comment further on GEOCOP.

Dowling said GEOCOP ingests only public and open-source data for its feeds, meaning a private social media account would not be monitored. Likewise, he said, spyware and malware are not used to obtain information. “We’re not the [National Security Agency] and we don’t claim to be,” he said. “We’re not into violating privacy. Our focus is primarily public safety with GEOCOP and the ability to have a better understanding of remote locations.”

Each potential threat identified in that stream is then assessed by GEOCOP employees to determine its credibility. Situational awareness training to determine a threat’s credibility often comes from employees’ time in the military. There is no formal scale for determining the severity a threat, and employees use their best judgment based on their training when assigning a rating.

Context, Dowling said, is important in determining authenticity. Employees look for existing patterns in a person of interest’s social media. If the user has a history of similarly violent tweets, posted pictures of a weapon recently or another social media user posted a concern about the person of interest on social media, GEOCOP will likely flag the post as a threat.

The severity of the threat determines who gets alerted first, law enforcement or the school. If the threat is a potential school shooting and time is of the essence, a GEOCOP employee will contact the school directly to let them know there is an imminent threat. If the threat is slightly less urgent, GEOCOP employees will contact the police department.

Sometimes, a threat could have been detected either by proximity to an event GEOCOP is monitoring, or in a related search that was not specifically restricted to a geographic location. Dowling said he feels a moral obligation to alert relevant schools and law enforcement agencies if he sees what he thinks is a serious threat.


A patriot

Dowling’s home has a military tidiness to it, accented with photos from his private security days of high-profile clients like George Bush and a former pope. An oil painting of one his ancestors who fought in the Civil War is proudly displayed in the living room.

Public service runs deep with Dowling. He was named after his father, Robert M. Dowling, a decorated air force commander who was killed in action while serving in the Vietnam War. His father was awarded four medals posthumously, including the Purple Heart, the Bronze Star for Valor, the Distinguished Flying Cross and an Air Medal with eight oak leaf clusters, each cluster representing 25 combat aerial missions over enemy territory, according to the Vietnam Helicopter Pilots Association.

Following in his footsteps, the younger Dowling joined the Naval Criminal Intelligence Service as a civilian special agent for 13 years and was assigned to work with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the United States military’s technology development branch, and later the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force.

“I would describe Bob as a patriot,” said Bill Bonk, director of strategic accounts at NC4, a friend of Dowling’s for more than 10 years. Mr. Bonk and Dowling met while working at the National Joint Terrorism Task Force.

Dowling founded GEOCOP in 2007 after dipping in and out of the private sector. He conducts business through Tactical, LLC, a company that he created to establish the social media monitoring company and a side business reselling domain names. The technology he uses for the service is the creation of Global Technology Solutions, an Alpharetta, Ga., based company that maintains the interface and patented social media filtering system.

“GEOCOP was built for cops by cops,” Dowling said.

Dowling participates in training most GEOCOP employees and manages day-to-day operations. The training, he said, is mostly “trade-craft,” on which he would not go into much detail.

“It’s more than being able to Google,” he said. “It’s the ability to understand right from wrong, understand fact from fiction, understand open-source monitoring versus any of the other things that you can do with the internet at higher spectrums. We teach them the law of open-source collection, we teach them how to discover – all of that is considered tradecraft.”

Dowling said his employees include both “civilians” to ex-military personnel. Often, he said, those who come from an intelligence background do well at GEOCOP, but prior intelligence experience is not necessary for the work they do.

The ideal GEOCOP employee is someone “who is used to operating independently like most war fighters, some of them operating in remote locations [and who has] the ability to communicate via the internet anywhere, including their man-cave or girl-cave, or [Veterans Affairs] hospital,” Dowling said.

The company prides itself on hiring “America’s most wounded warriors,” but not every veteran qualifies to be a GEOCOP, he said The company has a thorough vetting process to make sure candidates have the right background for the job, Dowling said, and not all positions involve the actual monitoring and alerting of threats.

“If America’s worst wounded veteran wants to be a GEOCOP,” Dowling said, “despite the fact that they have tremendous physical and mental wounds from war, we’re going to find a way – if they want to be employed as a GEOCOP – we’re going to find a way to employ them.”

Those mental wounds could also include Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Dowling said the only way he would know if a potential candidate has PTSD is if the candidate notifies him. Depending on the candidate’s abilities and needs, Dowling believes GEOCOP can provide unique accommodations for such employees. “We don’t require a commute--you can simply log on,” he said. “If you can’t sleep, it’s a perfect job because we have 12 hours that doesn’t get covered by people who normally sleep during those hours.”

The clients

Dowling would not say how many law enforcement agencies GEOCOP contracts with in total, but said the company holds contracts with around 70 police fusion centers around the country, which bring local, state, and federal law enforcement together to share information. According to promotional materials obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, the FBI was an early client of GEOCOP. The bureau sought out GEOCOP’s service in 2011 to “dramatically evolve their crime fighting operations.”

The FBI used GEOCOP to help develop a program called FBI NEXGEN COP, which monitored “all unclassified media and social networks” to suss out possible threats to the 2011 Asia Pacific Economic Committee. According to promotional materials from HMS Technologies, GEOCOP’s performance was graded by the FBI as having a “significant impact” on meeting the intelligence needs for the APEC meeting.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) was another prominent client, and one of the first police departments to contract with GEOCOP. The agency used  GEOCOP from 2012 to January 2015. According to a 2014 request to extend its GEOCOP product licenses to January 2015, the main draw for the FDLE was the need for a real-time system that is able to comb tweets and identify threats by distinguishing the context of the concerning  word or phrase.

According to contracts obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, the FDLE spent about $236,000 from 2012 to early 2015 on licenses with GEOCOP. Each license for the software is just under $300, plus installation and training; the FDLE purchased 30 licenses initially, later scaling back to 20. FDLE would not comment on the contracts.

Erick Montes

False alarms

When GEOCOP called Shawnee High School in Ohio in 2013, the company had detected a tweet while conducting an unrelated search that referenced violence against the school. Assistant Superintendent Brian Kuhn happened to be at the school when GEOCOP called.

“We didn’t even believe it at first,” Mr. Kuhn said.

Like the Fort Greene incident, school officials were left to their own devices to confirm both GEOCOP’s identity and the accuracy of the threat the company was calling about. The representative from GEOCOP gave only an agent number and wouldn’t give any further information beyond details of the identified threat.

“They’re very, very cloak and dagger,” Kuhn said.

Working with the high school’s principal, Kuhn kept GEOCOP on the line while they called the local sheriff’s department to verify the company’s authenticity. Within 25 minutes of receiving the call, administrators had identified the student, requested officers from the local sheriff’s office and brought the student in for questioning. The police arrived shortly after to conduct their own investigation, though it was later determined that the student was tweeting lyrics to a song.

Still, Kuhn considers social media monitoring valuable. Though the district does not currently have plans contract with a social media monitoring company, “The conversation is still open.


Disrupting bad days

GEOCOP’s competitors take slightly different approaches. For Social Sentinel, rather than keep monitoring in house, founder Dr. Margolis said, school administrators use a software that the company provides. Margolis said administrators, counselors, and staff will have a more effective understanding of their students and community than someone remotely analyzing would. The company contracts with both law enforcement and school districts.

“The software determines information they should pay attention to,” he said. “They determine if its a threat, they determine what level of concern.”

Margolis doesn’t consider the product a monitoring system, saying it is a “threat alert” system, but Social Sentinel’s privacy policy says the software allows customers “to monitor and assess” social media content it flags.

Like Dowling, Margolis comes from a law enforcement background. He served as chief of police at the University of Vermont for 11 years before founding Margolis Healy & Associates, a safety and security firm that caters to schools from kindergarten to college. Social Sentinel is his most recent venture, and has been offering its monitoring software to schools since January.

Margolis would not give an estimate for how many schools and law enforcement agencies he contracts with, but said his client base spans the country.

Despite flagging several threats against schools, both Social Sentinel and GEOCOP say they do not monitor individual students. The only way a student would be flagged by GEOCOP’s alert system, Dowling said, is if they post something containing a keyword or otherwise threatening material. The same is true for Social Sentinel. The user is not known specifically as a student, but does need to present a threat in a particular area to be flagged.

Geo Listening, on the other hand, takes a more student-focused approach to monitoring. Like GEOCOP, Geo Listening is also a service. Using similar keyword and geo-tag searches for monitoring, Frydrych’s company of less than 10 employees contracts directly with school districts, not law enforcement agencies. Employees create lists of social media accounts determined to be within each client school’s community.

Because students often have usernames that are different from their real names, Geo Listening uses context from posts and pictures to determine association with a school. Frydrych said his analysts work closely with the principals and vice principals of each school, and are familiar with the contracting schools down to the layout of the lunch tables and school colors. This helps them identify schools in posted pictures to determine if a user is a student and which school they attend.

The Family Education Rights and Privacy Act, a federal law regulating the disclosure of student information by schools, prohibits the schools from giving Geo Listening information on students, including, sometimes, how the affected student is doing after appropriate staff intervene. Frydrych said Geo Listening also has a policy of not following up on a particular student just because they have been flagged before.

For districts contracting with Geo Listening, reporting issues to the authorities is the district’s responsibility. Geo Listening gives its schools daily reports, some sooner if there is a more imminent problem. Frydrych said his company has alerted schools to potential sexual predators before, and is launching a new tool soon to streamline detection processes. He would not comment on the specifics.

“You’ll never hear me say that we can prevent school shootings and violence and suicide,” Frydrych said. “But we firmly believe that if you can disrupt anyone’s bad day, it can be better the next day. Or at least it resets the clock.”

Frydrych founded the company in 2013 after working in the kindergarten through high school education world for 12 years developing solutions to help administrators better serve their schools. He found that school districts are often stretched thin both in funding and personnel, and saw an opportunity for a company like Geo Listening to help at-risk students from falling through the cracks.

“All the leading indicating behaviors have vaporized into Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and so on,” he said. “So nothing is presenting the way it used to on how we’ve trained all these people, and so they need the leading indicators presented to them so that way they can do what they’re there to do.”

Part of his approach also involves helping students maintain a positive social media image. If, for example, a student athlete who was recruited to play at a college the following fall posted misogynistic comments online, Frydrych said, Geo Listening would alert the school to help intervene and explain why that is inappropriate. “Big CEOs have handlers that try their best and still fail at, ‘Don’t say that, don’t say it this way,” he said. “Who do the 15 year olds have? They don’t have that guidance.”

Like Dowling, Frydrych keeps his company’s client base under wraps, but news reports revealed that Geo Listening began monitoring schools in the Glendale Unified School District in California in 2013 --  five high schools and four middle schools.

“What I’m looking for is students who either say they’re going to hurt themselves – commit suicide – or hurt others, threaten the school – going to bring a gun to school, that type of thing,” said Scott Anderle, assistant director of student support services in the district.

Those are issues he flags for immediate response. Less urgent issues, like drinking or drug habits, are deferred to the individual schools. These are handled case by case based on the school administrators’ and staff’s relationship with the student and knowledge of the student’s background.

Mr. Anderle doesn’t believe that Glendale schools are unsafe, but said that there are incidents that were prevented by flagged social media posts that Anderle doesn’t think the district wouldn’t have found on its own. For him, Geo Listening’s effectiveness is measured by the amount of incidents prevented. He could not give a specific number.

“I think as a result of having Geo Listening,” Anderle said, “we’ve actually prevented a number – is it a huge number, no – but a number of incidents where kids were either thinking about killing themselves or doing something bad to the school and we were able to get involved and stop that from happening.”

The district pays $40,500 annually for Geo Listening’s services. Students from any school that contracts with Geo Listening can request a copy of all the information collected on themselves.

Privacy concerns

So long as the companies only monitor public communication, what they do isn’t illegal. In fact, there is little legal precedent or guidelines for monitoring public social media feeds, especially as it relates to schools.

California has the most comprehensive law, which went into effect in January. The law outlines steps a school must take before and during social media monitoring. Schools pursuing a social media monitoring program must alert their students and students’ parents or guardians, allow the public to comment at a “regularly scheduled meeting” before the program is put into place, and collect information that “pertains directly to school safety.” Schools must also destroy the information either within a year of the student leaving the school or within a year of the student turning 18.

It also imposes several requirements on third parties with which the school districts contract. All third-party companies are forbidden from selling or sharing the data collected and required to destroy the information “immediately upon satisfying the terms of the contract” or destroy the information within a year of the student leaving the school or turning 18.

In a similar vein, Utah passed a laws in 2013, prohibiting colleges from asking students for their social media credentials and punishing students for not complying.

All three companies stress that they monitor only public feeds and take privacy seriously, but experts raised several privacy concerns with the practice.

One issue is how long the companies retain the data it collects and with whom they share it. According to cybersecurity lawyer John Kennedy of the firm Wiggin and Dana, best practice is to delete the data as soon as it is no longer necessary for the service they are rendering.

Margolis said Social Sentinel purges the information collected by the software “on a regular basis,” but would not say how often. He also noted that the individual schools have the option to save the data on their own before Social Sentinel deletes it, making it subject to the individual schools’ data retention policies. According to Geo Listening’s privacy policy, Geo Listening keeps information collected “only for as long as necessary to accomplish the purposes of the Monitoring Service” or as long “as permitted by law.” All personally identifiable information collected is purged per state law requirements and after a contract is discontinued. GEOCOP is the only company of the three without a public privacy policy. According to Dowling, the length of time data is retained is left up to his law enforcement customers.

Another concern, said the ACLU’s Mr. Hamme, is sharing potentially innocuous posts with police, sending more kids through the legal process than are necessary. For Geo Listening and Social Sentinel, it’s up to contracting schools’ whether to contact law enforcement. Social Sentinel’s privacy policy, however, says that it will share the information it collects with law enforcement if it is presented with “a valid law enforcement request or legal process, to protect [Social Sentinel’s] rights and property of those third parties, or as otherwise permitted or required by law.”

Richard Tsong-Taatarii/Star Tribune via AP
In St. Paul, Minn., Black Lives Matters protesters blocked traffic to an NFL football game between the Minnesota Vikings and the Detroit Lions on Sept. 20.

Likewise, Geo Listening will share the information only with the schools it contracts with, as well as with law enforcement when it is “required by law” and when Geo Listening believes it is necessary “to protect our rights and/or comply with a judicial proceeding, court order, or legal process served on our website.” For GEOCOP, the information is already in law enforcement’s hands because they contract directly with the company.

Other concerns have less clear-cut solutions. Depending on the search terms used in the monitoring, said Nancy Abudu, director of legal operations at the ACLU’s Florida branch, there is the potential for profiling. Law enforcement came under fire in January whenCalifornia Highway Patrol (CHP) e-mails were leaked detailing social media monitoring of members of the Black Lives Matter protests. “What are the search terms these companies are using?” she said.

At the time of publication, there have not been any reports of discriminatory social media monitoring practices from any of the three companies.

Nadia Kayyali, an activist at leading digital rights nonprofit the Electronic Frontier Foundation, believes transparency about the way the social media monitoring is conducted can help prevent situations like that of the Black Lives Matter protest monitoring.

One way to increase that transparency is through Freedom of Information Act requests, Mx. Kayyali said (Mx. is a gender-neutral title). Members of the public can request information such as policies related to the monitoring, contracts between the companies and public schools or government entities, and the type of data being collected. (Geo Listening already allows any student attending a school it contracts with to request and amend all the information collected on them.)

That option goes away, however, when companies contract with private schools. Unlike public schools and government agencies such as law enforcement, private schools aren’t required to comply with Freedom of Information Act requests.

Both Hamme and Kayyali recommend that those with concerns contact the ACLU or the EFF, and continue to request public debates about the services before they are implemented.


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But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to

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