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With Social Media Surveillance, Flagler School District Is Breaching Community Trust

| April 22, 2018

magritte le faux miroir social sentinel surveillance

Magritte’s ‘False Mirror’ (1928).

By Brad West

As someone who works in marketing and communications, I have been heavily involved with social media for more than 10 years. I have always been a big fan and advocate of the many benefits social media provides to connect people and help keep us informed. At the same time I have always stayed very much aware of the consequences of inappropriate uses of media platforms by individuals and organizations.

I was floored when I saw the news that the Flagler County School Board School Board decided to venture into one of those areas of inappropriate uses of social media, and hire the firm Social Sentinel to conduct county-wide surveillance 24/7, 365-days-a-year. All under the sales pitch that it is for the protection of children, knowing that the good majority of the public will not understand or have thought past the board’s misleading claim that it is only monitoring public posts for valid “alerts.”

First, let’s be clear what this is: community surveillance, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year by our schools. This is similar to our local schools placing cameras and microphones everywhere throughout the entire county, surveilling every publicly stated word and action, pinpointing the individuals saying those words and doing those actions, serving that up to a program that will “assess threats” those individuals may do to themselves or others, compile that information over time into profiles, and store those records on those individuals. Keep in mind, you will have no access to know what information and “profile” has been compiled and stored about you and or your family or how know that information is being used.

Let’s be clear about what these systems and initiatives do. They are not just about pulling individual posts here and there for simple “alerts.” Determining someone to be a threat to themselves or others is not really possible from a single statement or post. That assessment is likely generated from compiling a number of postings. But whether it’s based on one or more postings, the assessment derives from only a fraction of what someone is saying and doing, because the system can only troll public postings. This could easily lead to misinterpretation and misrepresentation of the individual at any point in time for various purposes–purposes that could also include swaying public opinion on local school matters.

brad west

Brad West. (© FlaglerLive)

As noted in the FlaglerLive article the Schools have no procedure in place that outlines the use or storage of the information. In other words the district just signed an agreement to begin the surveillance of our community without any rules or plan–none that were included in any of the district’s scraps of public discussions or documentation on the issue this month. There is no guarantee, no proof, that the information gathered is not misused.

Without getting too technical, it’s important to understand how these systems target and pull this “publicly available” information, and what happens afterwards. When companies say they target “keywords and phrases,” they are speaking of searches that scan for the use of any combination of those words and phrases that would trigger an “alert.” For example, the words “school” AND “shooting” appearing anywhere in a single post or comment on a post within a specified geographic boundary in this case. If I have engaged in 25 different discussions related to school shootings and I have used those words in my own posts or public comments, I will have most likely triggered some alerts for myself.

Social Sentinel claims it only generates alerts after parsing the information to determine whether it rises to the level of an alert or not. Even assuming the parsing is effective–how would we know? What is certain is that some alerts are generated. Those alerts are then filed and stored without my knowledge, nor will I know who has accessed the information, or how that information is being used. (Social Sentinel claims it stores information for only 30 days. But the “alerts” it generates and sends to the local school district must be stored in compliance with Florida’s records laws, with minimums of years, not days.)

Why should that matter, and what’s the danger in that, if I’m not doing anything wrong? Very simple. Although we are supposed to be a society where one is innocent until proven guilty, in the court of public opinion today it is the reverse. If I stood in opposition to a ballot measure to increase our taxes with a school referendum, it could easily be spread that I appeared in alerts relating to “shooting up schools” and leave it up to the court of public opinion to interpret that. Or I could be the subject of veiled threats: after all, the district now has a documented profile on me. The argument I know many would make is that this is a far-fetched scenario, that “our schools would never do that.” But remember why we are even discussing this: the schools have just initiated a community surveillance program after first attempting to keep it secret (one school board member even implied that we were lucky to be hearing it discussed in the open, unlike other districts), and doing so using our tax monies we were told on the ballot would be used exclusively for student technology, not for technology designed to spy on us. And there are no policies in place to police the uses.

ocd flaglerliveQuestions abound with all of this. When and where does the school district’s authority end within the community? What rights do the schools have to conduct surveillance of the community? Since the schools have no authority to engage in community policing, shouldn’t the information they gather be available to the public? And now that the district is affirmatively pursuing surveillance initiatives, should we be worried about school-issued devices used to the same ends? That’s not far-fetched: the devices all have microphones and cameras, all are in thousands of households, all are accessing private home networks. Those devices potentially have remote access by the district for many reasons. Those cameras and microphones can be activated and used at anytime with or without your knowledge. Any device connected on the same wifi connection in a home has the ability to communicate with other devices connected on that network, giving school-provided devices the ability–potentially, anyway–to snoop on other devices and activity in your home. Far-fetched? Technically, not at all. (It is my opinion that any school device coming into a household should only be connected to a “guest wifi” connection which separates it from all other devices connected in your home, disconnected from the network when not being used. It’s also my advice to cover both the camera and microphone. And whatever you do, do not install any school provided application or connect to the schools’ network with any personal device. Again, the district will say it’s not using those devices to snoop inside homes, but trust is in question after its handling of the Social Sentinel contract.)

Don’t get me wrong, I agree that we must work to keep our students and schools safe. But we must always be cautious, and suspicious, when the solution is at the expense of liberty. Surveillance is always an encroachment, it’s always an attack on liberty. That’s why there are so many laws policing and restricting surveillance. You could argue that surveillance serves a critical purpose in this case. In fact, it’s not the best solution. It wasn’t for lack of alarming information that the shooters in Parkland or Sandy Hook managed to pull off their massacres. It was failure to act on existing information. That is where the focus and resources need to be targeted, along with community involvement and strong partnerships with other local institutions.

In my opinion, the direction the school district has taken with Social Sentinel is concerning, scary, and sad because our the district has truly crossed a line and broken the public trust. We will not be a better community with this program, and we will be less safe.

Brad West, a Palm Coast resident, is a social media marketing professional and the moderator of Flagler County Politics on Facebook.


31 Responses for “With Social Media Surveillance, Flagler School District Is Breaching Community Trust”

  1. Harold F. Underwood says:

    If you don’t want it seen don’t put it out there.

    • Pierre Tristam says:

      So if I want to go to a political demonstration but don’t want my local police department to snap pictures of me demonstrating there and keeping that shot in its dossiers (Public grounds, anyone can take pictures, after all), I shouldn’t really go to the demonstration? Not exactly the way we do things in this country. The step you’re missing here is that a government agency is building records about citizens. It crosses a line no matter how legally acquired the raw data may be. It’s like a chemical reaction, from the neutral to the poisonous.

  2. Dave says:

    Agreed. I would suggest the school board end this program at once, they are on dangerous ground with many families within the community. I have already heard kids talking about things like Ip address scrambles and encrypted messaging apps, fake profiles and the dark web, it’s like they are for ing everything under ground which will now make it impossible to detect what’s really going on. Shame

  3. WWG1WGA says:

    Thank you… great article.. They have ZERO right to do this surveillance on the community. I think it’s is a complete violation. It’s not about, “if you don’t want it seen, don’t put it out there,” it’s 100% about privacy. Did they not learn anything from the recent revelation of what Facebook did? This private company has no government regulation. They can do whatever they want with these “profiles” they make up. It’s a 3 year contract too. What will be their “trigger words?” Anything they want. School needs to only focus on academics, not surveillance. The VP of this company ( I think it’s the VP, or the president/founder ) was an ex sheriff. ( Check out his Twitter page.) I have a feeling the lines will be crossed and they’ll be turning this into something other than the focus of any trigger words. Do some digging on what this means for all of us. ( p.s. There’s even a picture taken of Zuckergerg and he has a little piece of tape over his camera on his device.) This is insane. Uh oh. Probably a trigger word!

  4. tulip says:

    I wonder how many of these “brilliant” school board members will get their phones and other social media devices tweaked so they can’t be looked into? Same for all the officials and teachers.

    I wonder how long it will take for some moron to post phony threatening letters just to see what really happens?

    Gee,Dennis MacDonald used to sue for everything he could in Palm Coast and Flagler County. Why doesn’t he sue the School board. Oh, I forgot, his wife is on it.

    Maybe someone has a friend that works for, or owns this company or the entire board has been suckered in.

    Took the school board a couple of years to figure out a dress code for the kids, but only a couple of months to hire a surveillance company?

    I;m glad I don’t participate in social media, but I feel sorry for the ones that do so innocently, It is a good tool for many things, Good luck to Flagler county.

  5. Linze says:

    What idiots running schools.
    They have no rights off school property
    It’s the parents job to raise their kids
    Vote them all out

  6. brian johnson says:

    If you are not proud of it don’t post really is that simple..

  7. Stretchem says:

    In the grand scheme of time, social media is but a baby, and we’re trying to wrap our brains around it. I think this is a step in the wrong direction for a technology that holds so much power and influence over the future of our humanity and prosperity. Rather than focusing on the true underlying causes of gun violence, we’re seeking some sort of panacea by blaming social media.

  8. WWG1WGA says:

    @brian Johnson You’re totally missing the point. It’s NOT about posting good or bad things. It’s the fact that they’re watching. Even if someone only watches cat videos, it’s none of their business.

  9. Sherry says:

    Read the book 1984 by George Orwell TODAY! Then, if necessary, read it again. These are all steps to “BIG BROTHER”!!! STOP throwing away your privacy, and therefore creating a way for others to control your lives!!!

  10. Richard says:

    Too bad!!! People have brought this on themselves with all of the social media craze and willing to post almost anything to get attention. If you don’t like it then don’t use it. Didn’t have this problem when I was in school.

  11. Pogo says:


    By all means – we all ought read, and understand, 1984. There is so much more:

    O wonder!
    How many goodly creatures are there here!
    How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
    That has such people in’t.
    — William Shakespeare, The Tempest

    Nothing is as simple as trump and trumpholes would have it – e.g.:

    “…Comparisons with George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four

    Social critic Neil Postman contrasted the worlds of Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World in the foreword of his 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death. He writes:

    Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egotism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.” In 1984, Orwell added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that our fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that our desire will ruin us.

    Journalist Christopher Hitchens, who himself published several articles on Huxley and a book on Orwell, noted the difference between the two texts in the introduction to his 1999 article “Why Americans Are Not Taught History”:

    We dwell in a present-tense culture that somehow, significantly, decided to employ the telling expression “You’re history” as a choice reprobation or insult, and thus elected to speak forgotten volumes about itself. By that standard, the forbidding dystopia of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four already belongs, both as a text and as a date, with Ur and Mycenae, while the hedonist nihilism of Huxley still beckons toward a painless, amusement-sodden, and stress-free consensus. Orwell’s was a house of horrors. He seemed to strain credulity because he posited a regime that would go to any lengths to own and possess history, to rewrite and construct it, and to inculcate it by means of coercion. Whereas Huxley … rightly foresaw that any such regime could break because it could not bend. In 1988, four years after 1984, the Soviet Union scrapped its official history curriculum and announced that a newly authorized version was somewhere in the works. This was the precise moment when the regime conceded its own extinction. For true blissed-out and vacant servitude, though, you need an otherwise sophisticated society where no serious history is taught.[30]…”
    Brave New World

  12. Nancy N. says:

    Brad is absolutely correct. It is appalling that this is being done, and being done with no transparency about what data is being stored and what is being done with that data. As an American I have the right to know what data the government is collecting about me and what they are doing with it. This has shades of McCarthy and Hoover written all over it.

    The egregious nature of the data collection aside, it is also upsetting that money is being wasted on this insane program that could go to other things that could actually help the students of the district, instead of the district experimenting with playing Big Brother to the community. What other programs are not getting funded because that nearly $60k will be given to Social Sentinel in the next 3 years?

  13. Downtown says:

    No need to get all upset over this, the damage was done years ago. You, we, have no privacy and haven’t for sometime now. When the police can drive past your home and point a device at your house that gives them a picture of where everyone is inside the house and what there doing, setting watching TV or washing dishes at the kitchen sink, etc. your privacy is gone. When license plate readers are placed along the roadways and the authorities can plot your movements, your privacy is gone. When NSA is catching all of our communications looking for key words or phrases, your privacy is gone. When companies are collecting data of your purchases and they know what your favorite brands are and how much you spend on that brand, you have no privacy.When you purchased that new car that is equipped with On-Star or another such system, your conversations inside the car can be monitored without you knowing it, your privacy is gone. At any given moment a profile can be put together giving information as to your likes, dislikes, where you spend your money and what you purchase, where you go and who you see, you have no privacy. The list goes on and on. Monitoring your social media is nothing new and is going on right now, without your knowledge or permission and has been for years. It’s out of control and there’s no stopping it. So, don’t get upset over this, it’s nothing new and your only hearing about it because the school district is spending your tax dollars to hire this company to do what is already being done by the government and countless other private companies.

  14. Joe says:

    Great article, straight to the point. These are my questions: When any wants to friend me on Facebook I get the option to accept or decline being that it is my preference whether I want my business and or information shared with them, my privacy so it is my choice. Does this software bypass that control I have over my info or can I be monitored because I might be friends with a district employee or even a person who may live in close proximity to a district WiFi signal? If you make a post using one of their key words or target phrases, can they then justify their optional use of turning on the device your using camera or micro phone. This type of thing has happened in other districts. A school district in Lower Merion PA was sued by the parents of a student who was suspended because of what the district saw him doing in his bedroom when they activated his camera on his school issued laptop. This is very scary!

  15. Joe says:

    Robbins v. Lower Merion School District, very, very interesting read and if this doesn’t alert you to what’s going on here nothing will. This is a gigantic waste of the 1/2 penny tax and a future waste of tax dollars when the law suits start!

  16. PB says:

    If you want to keep your toes dry, don’t dip them in the pond!

  17. Ben Hogarth says:

    Not only was this action one of the most egregious I have ever seen by a public agency, but it flies in the face of the 2nd Amendment debate we are currently having in this country. How? I find it ironic that so many rush to defend the right to bear arms, but suddenly we forgot our 1st Amendment rights. What about the right to privacy, which is effectuated by several Constitutional Amendments and provisions.

    Contrary to popular belief, posting something on your social media account like Facebook does not qualify it as public information. In fact, there was a time where you couldn’t even have a FB account without attending a university – it started as a means for college students to link and connect. Facebook allows us to privatize our profiles to a certain degree, including closing it off to the general public, whereas Twitter has limited personal choices. Still, what one posts on social media does not automatically qualify it as public information and the courts may have a tough time wrangling with that concept in the future.

    I can’t help but find myself in total agreement with Mr. West on this issue. The School Board has not only egregiously expanded its perceived and working scope of authority far beyond its legal authority, but it has opened itself up to future civil litigation. Of course, the general public and taxpayer will ultimately suffer for this breach of the public trust.

    We do need people engaged and to speak up if their hear a threat, even if idle or in passing. We need people willing to talk about limited access to weapons and enforcing against those who fail to secure their own weapons from criminal hands. We need a lot of honest discussion about mental illness, societal pressures, and failures within the education system to truly prepare children for the real world.

    What we don’t need are public legislators and overzealous officials expanding the scope of their authority far beyond what was ever legally intended, all under the guise of a “watchful eye.” If I were a parent in particular within Flagler County, I would not stop at this commentary – I would be bringing the matter to further civil action. I’ve already been of the belief that School Boards have become absurdly top-heavy and bureaucratic – this overstep by the Flagler County School Board is the greatest testament to that argument.

    Thanks go to FlaglerLive and Mr. West for once again bringing this issue to light. The School Districts in the State need to be checked – this kind of open attacks on privacy rights is unacceptable and far beyond their legal authority. When the School District Administration chooses to take action against a student who has stated something on their own time (perhaps not even relating to weapons or a school attack) and uses the information taken by this “spy contract” – the District will open itself up for litigation.

    Not a wise move at all.

  18. Chris A Pickett says:

    Contrary to some beliefs facebook was created as a means for young immature college males to “rank” and “rate” females based on how worthy they were for dating, and other things. Don’t try to polish it up and make it something it was NOT.

  19. stephen says:

    the only thing about this is if something happens in flagler county its their fault so let them

  20. Layla says:

    Federal surveillance of the internet already exists, people. You’re a little late with the complaints. Also, with current satellite imaging, they can tell which room of your house you are in. The school district is just trying to keep their kids safe.

    Where has the outrage been up until now?

  21. Sherry says:

    Right On POGO! A great analysis of two authors who had grave concerns about the future that is now being played out in every moment of our lives.

    The HOPELESSNESS and APATHY displayed in some of the comments above plays right into the hands of those (in the private, as well as public sectors) who find power and profits in taking away our rights and COMPLETELY CONTROLLING the individual. And, NO amount of Second Amendment fire power can STOP the shift of control from the individual to the wealthy/powerful!

    What can shift control, is to take back our “individual” power. Think of it this way. . . the more any entity knows about you, the more they can manipulate you and have their power over you.

    Our rising political FASCISM is also part of wrenching power away from the individual citizen, and the destruction of our Democracy . . . in these ways:

    1. Denigration of the Free Press- “Can journalists be jailed?”
    2. Creating fear and loathing of the “other”. . . a rise in racism, homophobia, hatred of refugees , etc.
    3. Denigration of our Intelligence Services and Judicial Systems
    4. Voter Suppression: gerrymandering, strident voter ID restrictions, etc.
    5. A consolidation of power in the Executive branch
    6. The FALL of the middle class and a larger financial GAP between the wealthy and the workers
    7. Political corruption where bribery of politicians has been legalized: “Citizens United”
    8. Resegregation of schools, and driving down the quality of education, by channeling public funds to “private” charter and religious schools

    and on, and on!

    We can, little by little, take our individual power back, do not say it is too late:

    1. VOTE! Be politically active and demand that your political leaders represent YOUR views
    3. Do not allow spies in or near your homes- technology that “listens” to you, or “watches” you
    4. Rethink your need to use social media, and adjust ALL privacy settings
    5. Think globally- like it or not, we share this planet with “Billions” of other human beings
    6. Educate yourself on ALL sides of ALL issues- do not let one media source manipulate you

  22. Florida voter says:

    @Sherry April 23, 2018 at 11:42 am
    Reading your comment, I really scared myself. I found that I was researching the difference between Fascism and Totalitarianism. The reason is from a comment I made more than a year ago, on March 3, 2017.
    I have a list where the first five items of mine are startlingly similar to your list, the difference being that the last half of my list sets up the military power of totalitarianism whereas yours sets up the economic power of fascism.

    Our government’s actions should never prompt curiosity regarding the distinction between Fascism and Totalitarianism.

    MORE THAN A YEAR AGO — and Trump’s made progress on these steps since my posting.
    Step 1: erode the public’s confidence in a Free Press
    Step 2: lie about large and small issues so many time that the public will start to believe any information from any source
    Step 3: alienate a segment of the population turning them into “the enemy”
    Step 4: use “the enemy” to remove freedoms and individual dignity
    Step 5: erode the public’s confidence in branches of the government trying to check the administration’s power (“so called judges” anyone?)
    Step 6: decrease oversight of the police / military
    Step 7: appoint Generals to posts traditionally use as civilian checks on military power
    Step 8: greatly increase military budget and power
    Step 9: use the military to start policing the People

  23. N/A says:

    This is going to far. Corruption will run rampant.

  24. brian johnson says:

    i do nothing wrong or illegal and therefore have no worries about ANYONE a good and clean life and you wont either..its really quite liberating!!

  25. Anonymous says:

    Agree …good article

  26. John dolan esq. says:

    The school board is now the brain police. Total disregard for our ineiliable right to privacy. Because it’s not in the constitution , therfore it doesn’t exist. Human rights outweigh the right to spy on people.

  27. Pogo says:

    @Right on Sherry

    “…We can, little by little, take our individual power back, do not say it is too late:…”

    What she said. MAGA (Make America Good Again)


    To those of you so nostalgic for an endless arms race, racial segregation, and a host of other ills you conveniently never recall when longing for days gone by; just keep doing as you have been and you’ll be back to those days again – on your way to rapid extinction. The universe won’t notice at all.

  28. Richard says:

    Pierre, HaHa, you’re too funny! Quoting the “Church Committee”. Who really cares? Only the people who have something to hide!

  29. Sherry says:

    Thanks Florida Voter and POGO! It’s gratifying to know that there are others who have similar concerns, and who are not just willing to just “roll over” and continue to allow their rights and personal power to be syphoned off by corrupt billionaires and politicians.

    We need to educate ourselves on the “credible” FACTS of the multitude of decisions that are being made DAILY . . . in the private as well as public sectors. . . that constantly weaken our rights and subtly manipulate our perspective. If you are getting your unvetted “news” solely from Social Media sources. . . BELIEVE the PROVEN FACT that Russia has propaganda trolls and bots out there to brainwash you at every turn.

    For credible FACTUAL data on what is happening, study the daily news from the professional journalists at APNEWS.COM, or NPR. If your only source for news are the “talking heads” on FOX or other “infotainment” programs, you are certainly getting only the slant their owners want you to see. Rupert Murdoch said years ago that his media empire would become powerful enough to put the world leaders “he” chose in place. That has now come to pass. Ask yourself, is that really OK with you?

    Those who wish to continue to cower under their beds, throw their brains and morals out the window, and allow others to “decide” for them, certainly are within their rights to become mere shadows on the wall.
    That will never be me!

    POGO- LOVE your PS!!!!!!

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