September marks the end of summer and the return to school for millions of students across North America. Thousands of students will be flooding to hundreds of college and university campuses.
This time of year also means it’s back to work for thousands of professors and staff members tasked with educating students and managing campus services and systems. Perhaps just as important as educating students, school administrations have the massive responsibility of keeping students safe during their time on campus.
Reported incidents of violence and criminal activity on campus have been fairly high across the US in the last few years. In this updated version of the “Back To School Special,” which was originally posted in September 2015, we look at the current landscape of campus safety and discuss how school administrators can use technology to improve campus safety.
Students and Social Media
The average college student spends 8 to 10 hours on their phone per day—a statistic that researcher James Roberts described as “astounding” in a Baylor University article. Some students even reported becoming agitated when their cell phone is not in sight and 60% of study participants said they “may be addicted to their cell phone.” You don’t say! But what are students doing on their cell phones?
90% of adults aged 18-29 use at least one social media platform according to a 2019 Pew Internet Research article. Social media’s evolution has resulted in more platforms for people to share and connect. Apps like Instagram, Snapchat and WhatsApp are becoming more popular than Facebook among college-aged students and teens. The trend is towards quicker, simpler, and more visually appealing apps.
Campus Security and Student Safety: The Landscape
Student safety should be a top priority of every educational institution. Most American universities have a formal campus security team or dedicated police force. Many of these teams are well funded and effective, but protecting tens of thousands of students is no small task.
In 2017, there were 38,100 reported criminal offenses across US campuses. Over 12,000 of those offenses were associated with rape and sexual assault, 21,000 with burglary and theft, and 45 with murder. There were also over 220,000 liquor law, drug abuse, and weapon possession violations.
In 2013 there were thousands of Aggravated Assaults, Robberies and Sex Offences on American university campuses (source). There were tens of thousands of Liquor Law and Drug Abuse Violations, and over a thousand Weapon Possession Charges. Considering these events happened over the course of a year and across hundreds of campuses, the numbers are actually not too high. But they can be better.
What can schools do?
Here are a few ways campus administration and security can use social media and other technology to ensure student safety.
Educate and Engage with Students
Use a campus security social media account to engage with and educate students about security issues. This can be used to remind students about crime statistics, tips on how to stay safe, and procedures when it comes to reporting crime. Students should also be educated about mitigating digital security risks, such as password best practices and using secure wifi networks.
Social media offers an informal channel to quietly address issues that may not need to be escalated to the authorities. [Tweet this]
It’s also incredibly common for people to post what appears to be harmless information that could lead to identity theft. For example, new students, graduates, or staff members commonly post photos of their IDs or certificates to announce the news, not realizing that this personal information could be exploited by bad actors in a number of ways.
A student or staff ID card is the social insurance number of a student’s university life. The ID number on the card makes a person unique within a school’s system. Hackers can easily get access to an individual’s personal information within the school’s system.
Below are a few examples of this discovered using Echosec, a location-based social discovery tool. These posts have been edited to protect the original posters’ privacy.
Posting any personal or banking information publicly makes students and faculty easy targets for hackers committing identity theft or financial fraud.
Campus security must educate students about the dangers of posting personal information on social media, and reach out to students who post this content.
Invest in Security Technologies
A number of campuses have implemented new security technologies to better prevent or investigate crime. Take Kansas State University, for example, who uses the LiveSafe app. The app streamlines emergency communications for students, enables peer-to-peer location tracking, and reports location-based safety information.
Seattle University’s panic buttons are another way of quickly notifying security of incidents without a smartphone. Universities can also invest in other hardware upgrades, including IP-enabled security cameras with higher resolutions and digital signage for spreading alerts.
Discovering critical information on social media, such as the cybersecurity risks described above, as well as actionable intelligence related to campus crime, relies on campus security’s ability to locate relevant posts quickly. Manually searching through social media channels is unlikely to yield relevant results when time matters. Social discovery software like Echosec is essential for finding location-based content on campuses that separates everyday chatter from potentially threatening content.
Monitoring software also allows campuses to discover critical information on the lesser-known but still widely-used platforms, such as Reddit. This location-based search for any public social content at UBC Vancouver appears dominated by Reddit posts over other platforms, such as Twitter:
Detect Safety Concerns and Criminal Activity
A Twitter post recently referenced non-consensual drugging at a UBC fraternity. Accessing this information allowed UBC and law enforcement to notify the community of this potential threat, disclose contact information for support services, and investigate any wrongdoing.
Accessing public, location-based social media data helps alert campuses to criminal activity and other safety concerns. This information could range from getting on-the-ground context in a crisis situation like an active shooter, to locating photo evidence linked to a burglary, to discovering self-harm content that could lead to suicide prevention.
Transparency in monitoring public social media data on campus is crucial. Students need to know how this information is being used. Security knows students are going to drink and party on campus—but that’s not the kind of content they’re concerned about.
The school administration probably doesn’t care about how many Jell-O shots students are doing on a Tuesday. [Tweet this]
Campus security cares about finding acts of violence, criminal activity, and other situations that could result in harm to students or campus property. Detecting this information should not dissuade students from having a social media presence, and security should reassure students that their safety is the school’s top priority. In most cases, school administrators don’t care about how many Jell-O shots students are doing on a Tuesday.
Social Media Monitoring Platform?
Social media monitoring platforms are software tools that allow users to aggregate public social media content based on keyword, image content, username, and location.
Location-based social media search tools have quickly become an essential part of workflows in security and a number of other industries. For the uninitiated, this is how it works in a nutshell: draw a shape on a map, enter the keywords you’re looking for, and watch public, geo-tagged social media posts populate within the shape. It’s that simple.
Monitoring tools on campus have faced a number of recent criticisms. A 2018 article by FIRE, an organization formed to defend student rights, condemns social media monitoring for a couple of reasons: lack of context (e.g. with inside jokes) implicates innocent students, and monitoring leads to a slippery slope of student surveillance—but not all social discovery tools operate like big brother.
Advanced software is effective at narrowing down relevant results so that law enforcement doesn’t need to consider harmless everyday chatter. FIRE also underestimates how effectively police can judge which content indicates a threat, regardless of context. In reality, sometimes inside jokes must be taken seriously anyways to protect students—for example, the “don’t come to school tomorrow” posts circulating in North American schools.
It’s also important to note that all posts discovered using this type of software are only posts that users choose to display publicly. Compliance and ethics are at the forefront of internationally-used products like Echosec, which must follow privacy laws like the GDPR and follow strict acceptable use guidelines that prohibit unnecessary surveillance on groups and individuals.
As mentioned earlier, campus security should be transparent about what information they’re looking for and how students’ data, even if public, is being used. It’s also up to students to adjust their security settings if they feel uncomfortable with campus security—or for that matter, anyone else in the world—accessing their public posts.
Ensuring the safety and well-being of an entire student body and campus is an enormous task. School administrations should take advantage of every available opportunity to connect students with security practices, technology, and support.
Social media gives campuses a huge opportunity to educate students about security issues and detect potential threats amongst publicly posted content in and around campus property. Monitoring must be a transparent process between security teams and students to ensure that this information is being used to keep people safe, not to track their every move. If used correctly, this technology can determine whether or not criminals are discovered or lives are saved.