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Students Raise Concerns, But Flagler School Board Approves Social Media Surveillance

| April 18, 2018

Flagler County Student School Board members Margaret O’Mahoney and Jessica Middleton posed most of the tougher questions about the district's contract with Social Sentinel Tuesday evening, ahead of the board approving its contract with the social media trolling company. (© FlaglerLive)

Flagler County Student School Board members Margaret O’Mahoney and Jessica Middleton posed most of the tougher questions about the district’s contract with Social Sentinel Tuesday evening, ahead of the board approving its contract with the social media trolling company. (© FlaglerLive)

The Flagler County School Board Tuesday approved a three-year, $55,500 contract with Vermont-based Social Sentinel to troll eight different types of social media accounts in and around Flagler schools and issue alerts to district staff when certain key words indicating suicidal thoughts, crime or other mischief are detected.

The approval followed a 50-minute discussion with Heather Harer, a sales director for Social Sentinel, including numerous questions from board members and more particularly and pointedly from the two student board members—Margaret O’Mahoney and Jessica Middleton.

Harer, however, while repeatedly and obsequiously flattering of the board, skirted around key questions, including a question posed at least three times in different ways by either elected or student board members: how Social Sentinel differentiates between surveilling students’ social media accounts and those of faculty, employees or the public at large, and to what extent its surveillance is or is not limited to school campuses. Harer answered in general terms, using a lot of technical language—“it’s got multi layers, so we have what we call a local digital footprint of exactly who your district is, and that’s your school district, and within that footprint we build out information very comprehensively about your school buildings, your locations, we use association-based information to understand exactly who you are as a school district to differentiate between our other clients, so that’s how the information pulls”–but never answering the question more directly than that.

In effect, the surveillance applies a wide net to geographically-tagged social media account without necessarily distinguishing between students, faculty, visitors, passers-by or neighbors. It is the first time the school district is implementing a surveillance system that potentially–if systematically–breaches campus limits and treads into the community at large, placing district officials in a para-policing posture, if only as adjuncts to law enforcement.

Contrary to certain public assumptions, the system has nothing to do with monitoring school-issued computers, whose network is already equipped with its own filtering system. Social Sentinel is not about hardware but posted data, whatever the means or the medium, as long as the data is publicly visible in any one of the social media platforms it scours, whether the postings issue from school-based computers, from smart phones, from residents’, employees’ or visitors’ computers and smart phones.

O’Mahoney questioned how Social Sentinel could differentiate between anonymous or pseudonymous social media accounts and those of actual students. Board member Colleen Conklin kept Harer from answering, saying those alerts are turned over to law enforcement, which, Conklin said, based on her own experience, “has the capability of doing that.”

O’Mahoney and Middleton had been concerned about the lack of student or parental involvement in discussions leading to the contractual proposal with Social Sentinel: the board only learned about it in a workshop on April 3, and discussed it for about 30 minutes then before considering its approval Tuesday evening. Johnson was candid: “Because of not wanting to breach the security measures that we’re trying to take here to ensure our students and staff will be safe, we have not gone to the public with this.” He did not explain how being transparent about a company that ostensibly does its work transparently, and by relying exclusively on publicly accessible information, would have breached student or staff security.

Conklin, never previously known as an advocate of secrecy, was more blunt: “Lot of districts that adopt this never even talk about it publicly, because it kind of defeats the purpose almost, sorta, right?”

Social Sentinel has contracted with 12 sources such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and other such public platforms to scour data and use what it calls its “threat library” of 450,000 key words or phrases that, combined with context and source, may trigger a threat “alert” to clients—in this case, what will be five to eight district-based administrators who will receive the alerts and decide how to handle them.

The student board members asked what specific process is in place to handle the alerts. But neither the administration nor the board explained what that process would be, nor were the district employees responsible for handling the alerts named.

Earl Johnson, left, the district's point man on the Social Sentinel contract, the company's Heather, a sales director, and technology director Ryan Diesing, speaking to the school board Tuesday evening. (© FlaglerLive)

Earl Johnson, left, the district’s point man on the Social Sentinel contract, the company’s Heather Harer, a sales director, and technology director Ryan Diesing, speaking to the school board Tuesday evening. (© FlaglerLive)

Social Sentinel does not troll private messaging systems like Snapchat or private messages on Facebook, nor can it detect pseudonymous accounts—social media accounts created  by individuals who invent names or pretend to be located in one place as opposed to another.

“It’s really contingent upon the school district to make sure the information is handled properly,” School Board member Andy Dance said, noting the absence of procedures at the moment that outline those procedures (an absence the student board members noted as well). On April 3 Dance had requested that Sentinel provide its own list of “safeguards” on its system’s uses and applications, and some references from other users or clients. Social Sentinel provided neither, claiming (without providing that evidence) it has contracts with some 250 school districts, colleges, universities or local law enforcement. Board members—and the public—were limited to brochure-type assurances from the company. Even then, the explanations were vague.

“One of your comments in the brochure you handed out,” Dance asked Harer, “you referred to respecting the community’s right to privacy and association by incorporating constraints that ensure your users are not targeting individuals or groups and are unable to go on fishing expeditions. So explain that, for the security of the public, how it’s targeted and how we’re not going on these fishing individuals or targeting individuals or groups.”

Harer’s response was remarkably meandering, and did not answer the question: “Just as you just read, you know, it’s about respectful understanding and listening, it’s looking at the First and Fourth Amendments, being able to understand what people’s rights are, and we’re only dealing with public accessible data, so right there, that’s information—I was talking to a client the other day and one of the comment that they made to me was, ‘It occurred to me before I started using Social Sentinel that we were the only people who weren’t aware of this information,’ so, meaning, you know, you could have, whether it’d be anyone who’s making these threats, they probably have a following and send out, you know, sometimes it’s 500, sometimes it’s 1,500, so think  about it as, if someone’s making a threat on your district and 1,500 people have already received that, but who hasn’t received it? The most important group, the group that could do something to deter that. Timing is essential these times. It is critical that we understand this language of harm or threat and that you the right people are able to put and deploy processes in place so that you can alleviate that. And so I think about this in situations where it was explained to me, now what it does is it puts a proactive approach into you and how you’re doing, you know, business, basically, within your school. You’re not now going to react.”

Dance did not follow up. The students did.

“This is something that the students are confused about,” Middleton said. “I know that there’s a certain level of expectation nowadays for students to have, what they’re posting is monitored. We’re taught from the age of middle school that what we post colleges can see, workplaces can see, our school district can see, but I think there’s a concern about what exactly this program is doing and how efficient it’s going to be rather than trusting the voice of the students.”

The selling point for the system—for Superintendent Jim Tager, School Board member Colleen Conklin and senior administrator Earl Johnson, the point man on the contract–is primarily to address issues of mental health, including suicide prevention. Johnson said he spoke to an administrator in another school district (which he did not name) and reported that the district through Social Sentinel had identified four students who had appeared to be threatening suicide. “My question to him was, do you think you saved the lives of four students?” Johnson told the board. “And his response was, I can’t say I saved the lives of four students because I don’t know what would have happened, the end result, however we still have those four students in our school district and they’re doing very well at this time.”

Tager, a former principal, stressed that point: “The one thing that always sticks with me is I’ve had students who have committed suicide and we have a high suicide rate here,” he said. “There’s not a price you can tell me on one student’s life, so this is something to look toward and it is an innovative possibility.”

“I would hate to have any other people that are worried about their privacy be the next victim,” board member Janet McDonald said.  “It’s a valuable tool that the community can embrace because of its neutrality.”

The $18,500-a-year contract is “locked in for three years,” according to Johnson: Tuesday evening was the first time the public was hearing about the three-year commitment. The contract will be paid for with revenue from the half-penny sales surtax that voters approved several years ago. Voters approved the surtax to enrich the district’s technology and technology-related curriculum. The referendum was silent on surveillance contracts.

The item drew no public comment at the meeting.

The Social Sentinel Proposal (2018)

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24 Responses for “Students Raise Concerns, But Flagler School Board Approves Social Media Surveillance”

  1. Mark says:

    Now another company can start selling our personal info. Big brother is alive and well.

  2. brian johnson says:

    glad to hear it..

  3. Linze says:

    None of schools business
    What a waste of taxpayers money
    Need new board

  4. T.J. says:

    Isn’t this against the law?

  5. tulip says:

    So The school board is going to spend $55,000 for a company to make a BIG profit spying on students, etc!!I bet you dollars to donuts that school board members, personnel and teachers will have their devices Tweaked somehow so that they can’t be spied on. And who knows what that company will find that has nothing to do with bad behavior, but info they can use to their own advantage?

  6. Chris A Pickett says:

    This will be like the out of state company that ran the red light camera scam I am guestimating, will I be correct?

  7. Always Something says:

    George Orwell’s 1984 – alive and picking up steam….. those we say they have nothing to hide are missing the overall picture……

  8. Dave says:

    Lawsuit!! I do not give my permission to the school board to spy on my family ,my kids who have trusted faculty are now feeling like they can’t even trust the school they are in, my kids do not want to live in this county now. They were crying when they heard this so I have no choice, I either sue the school board to protect my children’s right to privacy or I have to move to another county that doesn’t insist on spying on not only my children but every person in the district. I am supremely let down by Flagler county, I right this with the tears in my eyes.

  9. Double Cheese & Pepperonni says:

    Look, little Johnny was looking at Stormy Daniels nude pics…..OMG, put him in prison !

  10. Hunter says:

    WOW, This is some Eastern European/USSR pre-1989 sh*t and something that DOES go on NOW in places like North Korea. It’s amazing how so many people fight for our right to guns but not our privacy, but it’s the same old same old, the people that want to preach our constitution/amendments/bill of rights and less government as a platform are the first to want to know what goes on in everyone else’s bedroom. At tax payers expense no less. I think we all should pay our taxes less the portion that goes to school/education, if we all did it they couldn’t put a lean on all of our homes without a lot of national media. I am not pro-class action lawsuit, but this is one I’m actively going to invest time and money in. This has gone too far. This county is going to have some major punitive damages to pay in the near future and guess who will end up paying that tab? All of you who either agree with it or keep quiet. Every homeowner helped pay for this!

  11. Palm Coast Mom says:

    This isn’t what the tax increase was approved for. How do we protest the school board’s decision to spend our taxes on this useless spying??? The students are aware and will now modify anything they put out there, WHICH could possibly stop a teen from reaching out for help if they know there’s a big brother monitor.

  12. beachcomberT says:

    I do not have children in the Flagler School System. If I did, I’d be asking these questions: Does the school system or its contractor have the legal right to monitor all social-media accounts of its students? Are students required to tell the School System or Social Sentinel which social media they use, and what their various usernames are? Do they have to disclose all social-media passwords to the school system or Social Sentinel. If a student’s posting triggers a red flag in Social Sentinel’s computer, what happens then? Is the school official who receives the alert then permitted, or required, to notify other authorities, such as the police, FBI, Department of Homeland Security, Dept of Children and Families? I am surprised the School Board has approved this contract with seemingly very little review. At the very least, the School Board should ask the board’s attorney for a detailed evaluation of the contract, and what new responsibilities and liabilities are being created. It is easy to imagine a family deciding to sue the school system under a variety of scenarios — e.g. Social Sentinel failed to detect the bullying of my son; Social Sentinel didn’t report the online sexual harassment of my daughter; Social Sentinel triggered a false arrest of my son on a terrorism charge; Social Sentinel didn’t alert me to a teacher’s improper advances to my daughter; etc.etc etc.

  13. Parent of 4 says:

    It states these are not on private accounts, so these are searching on public posts, so how can anyone say their privacy is being invated? Public posts can not be deamed invasion of privacy. Most people who do harm to others/self usually post in a public forum b4 committing the act. I think it is something we need. Most people say there are warning signs but kid/people are afraid to speak out or miss the signs. If this could prevent one shooting or one suicide, THEN wouldnt it be worth it? I think it is a small price to pay to avoid what happeded at MSD. For the protection of my kids, I think it is worth it.

  14. Anonymous says:


  15. Hammock Bear says:

    Parents should monitor their kids social media comments. The school does have concern for students safety but, this should be the parents responsibility period. How much will this now cost We, the Tax payers?

  16. MannyHMo says:

    Let’s be careful here. A nefarious element can plant some illegal content in my account that would get me into trouble. If I were a student now I will discontinue my current social media connection and perhaps I may establish a new one with a very limited group. The mere allegation can destroy any person in the investigative process.

  17. DRedder says:

    Wow talk about pissing the property tax payers money away. Not to mention the class action law suit that soon to follow. Prehaps the school board needs to be let out of the swamp. Whatever happened to ensuring that the kids know how to read, write and do basic math? Why all the while keeping the purse strings tight. Today the students are functionally illeterate, know nothing about Geography , History , Spelling, Science or Math. Seems the current board was raised using the very same curriculum.

  18. Anonymous says:

    The only way we can get what we pay for is to elect officials who represent us. That means if this school board supported any of this—DON’T VOTE TO KEEP THEM IN OFFICE! As long as they flex their muscle and get away with it they will keep doing it. Most people don’t have the money and resources to take this to court—I suggest students starting a Go Fund Me page and getting some legal help to protect their privacy and rights. This county seems to have a history of being bullies and getting away with it. It is time for the people to stand together and put a stop to the corruption and waste in this county. Students need to band together and refuse to use electronic devices at school to protect their privacy and rights. Tell the school board to stick them up their butts. What is the school going to do, fail every student???!!!

  19. smarterthanmost says:

    Simple answer for those concerned, stay off social media platforms. No one cares what you had for dinner, or what puppy you would pick.

  20. Chris A Pickett says:

    I would just like to know why these students are issued laptops anyway, Do they teach any programming skills to these kids? Any advanced Statistical Analysis? Any, assembling and maintaining of these machines? They would be better served with a box of parts and told to assemble it. Pretty much just wasted technology, meanwhile in other countries, they actually teach useful things that can be done on the computer, not just social media and chatting. Keep up the great work…………..SMH. Guess Apple makes money off it so that is great…….

  21. Anonymous says:

    You shouldn’t have to stay of social media because the public schools want to pry into your private life. Schools have a responsibility to educate and that is it. They don’t do too good at that because there are a bunch of youth running around this state that don’t know how to write in cursive let alone do math and read. Remove all electronics from the schools and go back to paper and pencil and these problems wouldn’t exist. At least when paper and pencil were used kids could read and write.

  22. Brad W says:

    I actually work with social media pretty extensively in my profession, have a grand daughter (our daughter also went through the schools here) that will go to our schools this year, and this is wrong on many levels.

    1. This is school surveillance of the community at-large on a large scale (24/7 365 days a week). The term geo-fencing means defining an area to monitor and pull in the data. Posting of threats and mental health indicators is not contained to just school grounds during school hours and therefore is Flagler County as a whole. Is this the job of our schools? When & where does the school’s authority cease?

    2. In order to determine threats it typically requires more than single posts. It requires combining posts and creating a profile which Social Sentinel referred to doing. The profile is the story of you built just on half of what people post (the public ones). Ever been misunderstood? Ever have anyone compile and create a story about you that is a total misrepresentation of what you actually meant? It might have been embarrassing, but in this case it can be used to ruin lives or sway public opinion by targeting and silencing opposition on say a school .50 ad valorem tax referendum.

    3. If our schools were willing to keep this type of surveillance effort from the public, what other surveillance are they engaging in? School devices go into and log onto networks in thousands of homes throughout the County. Those devices once connected have access to other devices in the home plus they have “eyes and ears” (cameras and microphones). Are those devices being used to monitor in homes remotely? I would not doubt it at this point. My grad daughter’s device will be on a guest wifi with cameras and microphones covered and unattached from the network when not in use.

    “With liberty” . . . kind of hypocritical for our schools to even have our children stand and say those words in the pledge every day.

  23. Lisa says:

    It’s ridiculous to hire this company and pay 55,500 to have them troll our social media accounts.
    Do we not have qualified people who live and work here and are completely capable of trolling the internet?
    This should be done LOCALLY….yet, once again the power hungry (and *ELECTED* <- remember that part, we can fix this problem) officials have sent more money out of our county to do work that can be done right here at home to boost our LOCAL economy.

    I say – LET'S MAKE THE COMPANY AND THE *ELECTED* OFFICIALS SORRY THEY EVER MADE THIS OFFER….throw in a few keywords in every social media post just to trigger a response.and waste their time.

    For example – Oops…did I just say "such and such" <- insert trigger word or phrase here??? I'm sorry, I meant to say "Happy Birthday" or "we're having a picnic next Saturday"….Boy, do I feel foolish! Blame Autocorrect!

  24. Hunter says:

    My friend in Los Angeles is good friends with Erika and Tom Girardi. I’ve forwarded all the info to them. He is a great attorney, famous for the landmark settlement against PG&E, which was the base for the movie Erin Brochavich. They are attorneys “For Us Little People” and against big business and big government. I’m going to do all that I can to have them take this case on. Even if I have to have a fundraiser every week, but IF they take the case it will probably be a contingent case. Please don’t take this as grandstanding or name dropping, I’m just REALLY upset over this, of this can happen, when will it stop. This is how society becomes desensitized. A little at a time and before you know it there will be pockets of Pseudo-Communist like local governments and just like red light cameras, when one community does something new and drastic and is told it works, then everyone else hops on the bandwagon. I can guarantee you that they will somehow twist a new story, making it sound like this new intrusion saved someone from committing suicide, exploiting someone’s struggle for the wrong reason. Spend this money on tutoring, college students can’t even structure a sentence these days. I heard a newscaster say on camera… ” We went to they house for an interview, but no ones were home”. What is happening to this place?

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