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June 4th, 2022:

Social media monitoring is not a solution to school shootings

While current Republican “solutions” for gun violence include door control and arming teachers, one “solution” that has been in place for the past few years has been monitoring social media for signs of gun-related threats. That was in place in Uvalde, and it was not effective.

After a shooter killed 21 people, including 19 children, in the massacre at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, last week, the United States is yet again confronting the devastating impact of gun violence. While lawmakers have so far failed to pass meaningful reform, schools are searching for ways to prevent a similar tragedy on their own campuses. Recent history, as well as government spending records, indicate that one of the most common responses from education officials is to invest in more surveillance technology.

In recent years, schools have installed everything from facial recognition software to AI-based tech, including programs that purportedly detect signs of brandished weapons and online screening tools that scan students’ communications for mentions of potential violence. The startups selling this tech have claimed that these systems can help school officials intervene before a crisis happens or respond more quickly when one is occurring. Pro-gun politicians have also advocated for this kind of technology, and argued that if schools implement enough monitoring, they can prevent mass shootings.

The problem is that there’s very little evidence that surveillance technology effectively stops these kinds of tragedies. Experts even warn that these systems can create a culture of surveillance at schools that harms students. At many schools, networks of cameras running AI-based software would join other forms of surveillance that schools already have, like metal detectors and on-campus police officers.

“In an attempt to stop, let’s say, a shooter like what happened at Uvalde, those schools have actually extended a cost to the students that attend them,” Odis Johnson Jr, the executive director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Safe and Healthy Schools, told Recode. “There are other things we now have to consider when we seek to fortify our schools, which makes them feel like prisons and the students themselves feel like suspects.”

[…]

Even before the mass shooting in Uvalde, many schools in Texas had already installed some form of surveillance tech. In 2019, the state passed a law to “harden” schools, and within the US, Texas has the most contracts with digital surveillance companies, according to an analysis of government spending data conducted by the Dallas Morning News. The state’s investment in “security and monitoring” services has grown from $68 per student to $113 per student over the past decade, according to Chelsea Barabas, an MIT researcher studying the security systems deployed at Texas schools. Spending on social work services, however, grew from $25 per student to just $32 per student during the same time period. The gap between these two areas of spending is widest in the state’s most racially diverse school districts.

The Uvalde school district had already acquired various forms of security tech. One of those surveillance tools is a visitor management service sold by a company called Raptor Technologies. Another is a social media monitoring tool called Social Sentinel, which is supposed to “identify any possible threats that might be made against students and or staff within the school district,” according to a document from the 2019-2020 school year.

It’s so far unclear exactly which surveillance tools may have been in use at Robb Elementary School during the mass shooting. JP Guilbault, the CEO of Social Sentinel’s parent company, Navigate360, told Recode that the tool plays “an important role as an early warning system beyond shootings.” He claimed that Social Sentinel can detect “suicidal, homicidal, bullying, and other harmful language that is public and connected to district-, school-, or staff-identified names as well as social media handles and hashtags associated with school-identified pages.”

“We are not currently aware of any specific links connecting the gunman to the Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District or Robb Elementary on any public social media sites,” Guilbault added. The Uvalde gunman did post ominous photos of two rifles on his Instagram account before the shooting, but there’s no evidence that he publicly threatened any of the schools in the district. He privately messaged a girl he did not know that he planned to shoot an elementary school.

Any kind of surveillance involves a tradeoff between privacy and security. So far, the security gains from software like this are small, while the loss of privacy – which to be clear here is the privacy of children – is significant.

For privacy advocates, the lack of evidence for the technology’s effectiveness means that there are no sufficient grounds for the potential violations of privacy that come with its use. Hye Jung Han, a researcher at Human Rights Watch specializing in child rights, told The Verge that using surveillance technology on children could cause unwarranted harm:

“Could you imagine schools using toxic materials to build classrooms, even if it hadn’t met any safety standards? No,” said Han. “Similarly, to use unproven, untested surveillance technologies on children, without first checking whether they are safe to use, exposes children to an unacceptable risk of harm.”

Multiple requests for comment sent to Navigate360 — which acquired Social Sentinel in 2020 — did not receive a response.

The Uvalde school district was confirmed to have purchased monitoring capability from Social Sentinel in 2019–2020, though it is unclear whether the subscription was still active at the time of the shooting. However, even if it had been, the technology would have been unlikely to flag any of the shooter’s posts. There are now numerous reports of concerning activity surrounding the shooter’s online activity: he allegedly made frequent threats to young women and girls via chat apps, sent images of guns to acquaintances, and reportedly discussed carrying out the school shooting in an Instagram chat. But Social Sentinel is only able to monitor public posts and would not have had access to any content shared in private messages.

At the same time, there are significant privacy concerns with the software. In 2019, the Brennan Center for Justice outlined a range of civil and human rights concerns stemming from expanded social media monitoring in K-12 schools, among them the questionable effectiveness of the technology in combination with a tendency to disproportionately impact students from minority communities. In the same year, reporting by Education Week also covered the dramatic expansion of digital surveillance in schools, highlighting the large number of false positives generated by Social Sentinel’s technology. (Alerts were reportedly triggered by tweets about the Mark Wahlberg movie, Shooter and from a student pleased their credit score was “shooting up,” among other things.)

Of all US states, Texas has been the most enthusiastic about the use of digital surveillance for school children. A 2021 investigation by The Dallas Morning News found that no state has more school districts contracting with digital surveillance companies than Texas. But of the Texas districts that did take out these contracts, results were apparently mixed: a number of school districts that had paid for Social Sentinel told the Morning News that they had declined to renew contracts, describing a service that provided few actionable alerts or flagged mostly irrelevant information.

But while Social Sentinel advertises an ability to monitor a broad range of platforms, there’s some suggestion that its surveillance capabilities are dictated more by the accessibility of data sources than by their importance. A client presentation from the company shared by the EFF lists a range of social media sources for monitoring, including Instagram, YouTube, Vimeo, Flickr, Tumblr, WordPress, and even Meetup.

Data obtained by BuzzFeed News confirmed this through data obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, which showed the company skewed heavily towards Twitter monitoring. Of the 1,206 Social Sentinel alerts provided to BuzzFeed, 98 percent (1,180) related to tweets — even though Instagram, YouTube, and even Facebook are more widely used by younger demographics. But the conventions of Twitter — where the vast majority of posts are publicly visible, even unintentionally — mean that it is comparatively easier to monitor, providing a wealth of social media data on tap that can be assimilated by companies looking to boost their surveillance credentials.

The DMN reports that some of the school districts that kicked the tires on Social Sentinel later decided it wasn’t worth it.

Uvalde is among at least 52 school districts and three colleges in Texas that have used the Social Sentinel service, according to records from GovSpend, an organization that tracks state and local government spending. It has also been used by dozens of colleges and hundreds of school districts nationwide.

Uvalde purchased Social Sentinel in August 2019, according to GovSpend. A document from the 2019-2020 school year lists the service as one of the district’s “preventative security measures.”

“UCISD utilizes Social Sentinel to monitor all social media with a connection to Uvalde as a measure to identify any possible threats that might be made against students and or staff within the school district,” the document reads.

The district made two payments to the company totaling more than $9,900, the data show.

Several Texas districts that have used Social Sentinel complained the service was mostly ineffective. The News reached out to every school district that used Social Sentinel, including Uvalde, for comment last year. Clear Creek ISD, a district outside of Houston, used the service in the 2018-19 school year but soon canceled.

“The Clear Creek Independent School District discontinued the use of Social Sentinel in its first year,” Elaina Polsen, Clear Creek’s chief communications officer, told The News last year. “The District determined the service just did not meet our needs, and we were receiving far stronger information through our anonymous tip line.”

Representatives from Keller, Lewisville, Mineral Wells and Schertz-Cibolo school districts also said the service provided them with few alerts or alerts that contained mostly irrelevant information.

HISD does not appear to have been a user of Social Sentinel, so we’ve got that going for us. There are other companies with similar products out there, so be on the lookout for that kind of pitch. It’s not out of the question to me that a tool like this could be effective at some point (we would still have to debate the privacy impact, and I can just about guarantee that it won’t be good), but we’re not there yet and it may be awhile before we can reasonably broach the subject. In the meantime, I dunno, maybe ban assault weapons again like we did in the 90s? Worked pretty well back then, and it didn’t involve snooping on things kids were saying among themselves. Just a thought.

(FYI, I first heard about Social Sentinel and its connection to Uvalde on the What Next podcast. I went looking for the DMN story from there, and found the others in the same search.)

Now I know the difference between those two Army Corps of Engineers lawsuits

Some good timing for me here.

A federal appellate court on Thursday reversed an earlier decision that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was not to blame for flooding homes downstream of the Addicks and Barker reservoirs after Hurricane Harvey.

The ruling brought new hope for thousands of people after U.S. Judge Loren A. Smith of the U.S. Court of Federal Claims passionately dismissed their lawsuits in 2020.

“These were flood waters that no entity could entirely control,” he wrote at the time.

The case will return to the lower court, according a news release from the McGehee, Chang, Landgraf, Feiler law firm, which represents the plaintiffs.

The lower court will again consider if the Corps is liable for the flooding that occurred after the Corps opened the gates on the dams, sending water pouring down Buffalo Bayou.

So yesterday’s post was about developments in the upstream lawsuit, in which as we know the Army Corps of Engineers was found liable. I must have not seen the 2020 story about the dismissal of the downstream lawsuit. It’ll be interesting to see what the judge makes of it now. Hopefully the next time there’s news about it I will catch it.

There’s only so much that Austin (or any other Texas city) can do to protect abortion rights

I appreciate this, I really do, but it’s important to remember that it can only ever be a band-aid, and very likely a temporary one.

The city of Austin is attempting to shield its residents from prosecution under a Texas law that would criminalize almost all abortions if Roe v. Wade is overturned — the first push by a major city in a red state to try to circumvent state abortion policy.

Councilmember Chito Vela is proposing a resolution that would direct the city’s police department to make criminal enforcement, arrest and investigation of abortions its lowest priority and restrict city funds and city staff from being used to investigate, catalogue or report suspected abortions.

“This is not an academic conversation. This is a very real conversation where people’s lives could be destroyed by these criminal prosecutions,” said Vela, who shared the details of the resolution first with POLITICO. “In Texas, you’re an adult at 17. We are looking at the prospect of a 17-year-old girl who has an unplanned pregnancy and is seeking an abortion [being] subjected to first-degree felony charges — up to 99 years in jail — and that’s just absolutely unacceptable.”

[…]

The new resolution doesn’t explicitly decriminalize abortion but rather directs police to make it their lowest enforcement priority in an effort to skirt conflict with state law, Vela said. But it highlights the tension between red state and the blue cities, where a new front in the battle over abortion rights is opening as the Supreme Court prepares to issue a decision on Roe in the coming weeks.

A city of Austin spokesperson said in a statement that “the city is prepared to take the steps necessary to implement this resolution upon passage by City Council.” The council passed a similar measure in 2020 that effectively decriminalized marijuana by ending arrests and fines for low-level possession, which the police department has followed.

Vela said he is having “ongoing conversations” with Austin Police Chief Joseph Chacon about the proposal and hopes the department will comply with the directive. A department spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.

“The police do not want to be in the middle of this controversy. The police right now in Austin are struggling with staffing,” Vela said. “I don’t think the police want to dedicate resources to these types of, what I would call, ‘political crimes.’”

A spokesperson for state Attorney General Ken Paxton did not respond to a request for comment. Paxton, a Republican, has been at the vanguard of restricting abortion access in Texas, which has been in the spotlight since the state’s six-week abortion ban, enforced through a private right of action, took effect in September 2021.

Austin’s proposal, which aims to protect both patients and providers, comes as an extension of the city’s efforts to preserve abortion access despite the state’s restrictions. The city has, for instance, provided logistical support for abortion access, including transportation, lodging and child care, since 2019 — a model St. Louis is now looking to replicate.

More cities in Texas could be next. Julie Oliver, executive director of Ground Game Texas, a group that pushes for progressive, local ballot measures, said they are looking at pushing similar measures in San Antonio, Houston and Dallas. If that isn’t successful, the group plans to turn to the local ballot initiative process.

“Home rule charter cities have a tremendous amount of leeway and self-governance, and part of that is deciding which laws you’re going to prioritize,” Oliver said. “And so, because you have a finite number of resources in a finite budget, cities are constantly deciding which laws they’re going to enforce and which ones they are not.”

I support the idea and I love the creativity, as we have discussed what progressive cities can do to protect abortion rights. That includes proactive measures to thwart prosecution, which is very much in a city’s purview. The problem with this approach is simply that as long as the state is run by Republicans, they will pass laws to prevent cities from taking these measures and will punish them for even trying. I’m sure I don’t have to recite to you the long list of attacks on local control lately, but we have already seen reporting to say that the Briscoe Cain uterus-invasion caucus will file bills in 2023 to allow other counties to pursue prosecution of anyone who violates the new forced-birth laws if the local DA refuses. It’s not at all far-fetched to imagine state troopers being given the authority to investigate these claims, which I’d bet will come with a bunch of money to hire more staff specifically for that purpose. I’m sure there will be more private vigilante bounties included as well, to help fund the effort. If recent history is any indicator, they will go much farther than anything Austin tries to do, to send a clear message that they will not tolerate any dissent. Do we really want to test that hypothesis?

Please note that I am not saying that any action on our part is pointless and we should just give up. Not at all! I am just saying – again, and again, and again – that we need to win some statewide elections. The Republicans can only do this as long as they are in control, and they will only be incentivized to do this as long as they perceive there’s no price to pay for it. The antidote for that is obvious. I’m not saying it’s easy, and I’m certainly not saying that this will be an opportune year to do it. I’m just saying that as clever and well-intentioned as these ideas sound, they’re sand castles against the tide. The problem is bigger than anything a city can do. We have to solve it at that level if we want to get anywhere. Reform Austin, KVUE, and Daily Kos have more.