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Do social media security alert programs protect or invade?

By Jerry Davich, Post-Tribune
March 17th, 2016

social-media-alerts

Social media monitoring programs can serve as a first line of defense for schools, but privacy issues abound

On Jan. 26, a 16-year-old Hobart High School student posted a threat on social media, saying his school would be “shot up” the next day.

The boy was arrested the next morning, claiming his threat was only a joke, police said.

On Jan. 27, a message posted on social media warned “MHS” students not to go to school the next day, including the phrase, “Pray you don’t die.”

Police presence at Merrillville High School was beefed up the next morning, though school authorities later determined that the threat was aimed at a school outside of Indiana. Nothing ever happened.

These are just two examples of what’s taking place on the “digital playground,” as it’s called by social media security experts.

“I have to wonder how many potentially dangerous things like this go unnoticed every day on social media,” said former Porter County Sheriff David Lain.

In response to such incidents, there are emerging new security technologies involving social media threat assessments. Many are cloud-based, automated-alert systems that “see” certain words, phrases and acronyms possibly construed as threats, all contained in a virtual library.

“A client can add their own threat-library of terms to fit their local needs,” said Lain, who attended the rollout of several programs late last year in West Palm Beach, Fla. “I was blown away by the quality of what I saw. Real cutting-edge stuff that truly has the power to save lives.”

But do these monitoring programs infringe on the privacy of social media users?

“The issue is trust,” said Ranjan Kini, a professor of management information systems at Indiana University Northwest in Gary.

“Security is important, especially when dealing with students in high school and under 18 years old,” he said. “The scanning of public social media comments, specifically focused on tracking the words and phrases leading up to terror threats, can be abused.”

Lain has talked with Porter County school superintendents about using one particular program, Vermont-based Social Sentinel, whose tagline is “assess, alert, avert.”

“Social Sentinel does it all automatically,” said Lain, who is doing consultant work with the firm. “I am staking my reputation as a police officer that it will save lives.”

No school district or university in this area has yet signed up, company officials told me.

Key issues such as cost, software effectiveness and privacy invasion must be researched before moving forward, I’m told by local officials.

Purdue University Calumet’s director of safety and transportation, Brian Miller, who recently retired as police chief for the city of Hammond, said he was “intrigued” by such a program for his campus.

“We’re always interested in any new technology that can assist us in improving our emergency preparedness posture,” he said.

Valparaiso police Sgt. Michael Grennes said his department has listened to proposals for such a program, but no decision has been made.

I received mixed reviews about these programs from a few parents I spoke with, most who are on the fence until such technology gets adopted by their child’s school.

Most of these high-tech threat-assessment programs claim they do not profile or monitor people who remain “invisible” until they iterate a threat via public social media. When the system finds key words or phrases on any public social media platform, designated people in authority, such as school administrators, counselors or law enforcement, are immediately alerted.

“I truly believe this technology is a game-changer for both public and private safety,” Lain said. “And, ultimately, it could save lives.”

Portage Police Chief Troy Williams agrees, saying his department will soon be using a similar, but much less expensive program called Media Sonar. The Canada-based company bills itself as a “location-based social media monitoring platform that provides public safety.”

“We’re trying to be proactive with this issue by using new technology to help us protect our community,” Williams said. “This can also help us with ongoing investigations, as well as to look for key words that can pose a threat at our schools.”

Williams said he can set the parameters of the program’s geo-fence, whether it’s for only around Portage schools or city-wide. The company offered a live-stream training session for Williams and his detectives, drug unit officers and school resource officers, who will be the first officers notified when an alert pops up.

Williams said Media Sonar will cost the city $5,000 a year, compared to Social Sentinel, which would have cost $18,000 a year. For schools, Social Sentinel’s cost is determined on a tier-based flat annual fee, ranging from 5 cents per student to $1 per student, depending on the school district’s size, company officials said.

Regarding potential invasion of privacy issues, Williams echoed Lain’s stance that only public social media posts would be monitored. But what if this privacy issue pops up with an actual, not hypothetical, case or crime?

“We’ll cross that bridge when that time comes,” Williams noted.

School districts will likely start paying more attention to this issue, but at what cost, in regard to privacy?

“Do students and parents of high school students trust the trained administration people using such software to use only those restricted words and phrases?” asked Kini, from IUN. “Or will they be looking for other words and phrases which are not primarily relating to terrorism, and use it in other contexts not intended?”

Typically, red-flag warning signs on social media indicating harm or danger are not discovered until after a tragedy or shooting incident, Lain noted. As with most cops I spoke with, these new programs can “ping” potential threats beforehand, Lain noted.

“Clients’ privacy is closely guarded by the social media companies, as we are seeing in the Apple versus FBI case, and they do not unlock private messaging for anyone,” Lain said.

Kini said there are possible ways to address privacy concerns.

“To gain trust, the administration can develop elaborate policies laying the foundation for accountability and responsibility in cases of a breach of trust,” he said.

This thorny discussion is currently taking place among Northwest Indiana school officials, law enforcement agencies and software security firms. However, parents also need to be a part of it regarding the digital playground, a potentially dangerous place for kids and adults alike.

[Image via Gil C / Shutterstock.com]

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