Privacy SOS

School cop claims student social media spying operation started with call from the NSA

This is the weirdest story I've heard in a while. It shines a bright light on the trickle down of the national spy state to the local level, where officials apparently think they can invent fairytales about terrorism to justify their local dragnets.

A Huntsville, Alabama school claims it started a program to spy on student social media accounts after a school police officer received a tip from the NSA about a student's postings relating to Yemen. The NSA denies ever making such a call, pointing out that this kind of communication falls far outside the agency's standard operating procedure and noting that if any federal agency would have done such a thing it would have been the FBI.

Nonetheless, local officials claim the supposed call from the NSA got them worried enough about student social media use that they secretly hired a former FBI official to run a social media spying operation targeted at students. School board members told journalists they weren't consulted about the spying program, which has operated in secret for over a year. Officials have already expelled many students after their social media posts were identified by the private spies, reports

Acting on tips from students or teachers or others, schools security staff scour numerous social media sites, including Facebook, twitter, instagram, pinterest, and more. They look for evidence of imminent threats to the schools or of gang activity. [Huntsville schools Superintendent Casey] Wardysnki said the program has led to about a dozen expulsions each year so far and that security is actively monitoring social media at all times.

"People are very good about 'If you see something, say something,'" said Wardynski.

All of this, supposedly because the NSA tipped off a "school resource officer" at Huntsville to a student's social media posts. But this origin story is extremely difficult to believe. The NSA is notoriously stingy when it comes to sharing intelligence even within the US government's so-called "intelligence community." It's highly unlikely that the NSA would take the unprecedented step of directly calling a high school police officer in the United States about student social media use.

So what gives? Could it be that a local cop is trying to use the NSA's omnipotent eye and fears about terrorism to justify his own secret surveillance program, targeted at students? Do officials in Huntsville think that if they mention "national security" the local school board won't take them to task for operating this program in secret for over 18 months, or utterly demolishing student privacy by watching young people's every move, even outside of school?

The bizarre affair in Huntsville reminds me of the New Jersey cop who told a citizen, "Obama has decimated the friggin' Constitution. So I don't give a damn cuz if he doesn't follow the Constitution, we don't have to." Apparently that message got through in Huntsville, too.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.