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Alabama schools secretly spying on students' social media after NSA called in a tip

Since when did the NSA start monitoring American school students' social media posts?

Monitoring
Credit: © Ocean/Corbis

Since when does the NSA make calls to schools after monitoring students’ social media posts? The NSA denies that it made such a call to Huntsville, Alabama, but the school superintendent initiated a “secret program to monitor students’ online activity” after allegedly receiving a tip from the NSA about students tweeting and posting violent threats on Facebook.

It’s not surprising that the NSA would deny monitoring American students. NSA PR spokesman Vanee Vines said, "The National Security Agency has no record that it passed any information to the Huntsville school district, and the description of what supposedly occurred is inconsistent with NSA's practices." Vines added that the NSA focuses on foreign intelligence and "does not make recommendations regarding school safety programs.”

Superintendent Casey Wardynski claims, "There was a foreign connection" as a Huntsville student who made the online threat was supposedly “chatting online with a group that included an individual in Yemen.”

Students Against Fear Huntsville City Schools Security Operations

Not all of the Huntsville school board members were told about the SAFe (Students Against Fear) program, even though it started about 18 months ago. Of the three school staff members who are listed next to the school’s SAFe logo, one is a former FBI agent. Incidentally, NSA spokesman Vines had said that if any information was discovered "about a domestic safety issue," then it "would be sent to another federal agency, like the FBI."

School security officer, Al Lankford, said he took the phone tip in May 2013 from someone claiming to be from the NSA and warning that a student tweeted threats of violence against an assistant principal and two teachers. School officials then searched the student’s car and found a large knife. WHNT cited an internal email dated May 17th, 2013, in which Lankford wrote that the “National Security from Washington, DC, called [redacted] to speak to the head administrator…” Wardynski said “the caller ID showed the call came from Washington, D.C.”

That was apparently enough for the superintendent to start spying on students’ social media. He told WHNT, “Very often we find unfortunately that young people have evil intentions which they express in public places like Reddit and Facebook and Twitter. They provide video of what they’ve already done, they provide pictures of themselves with weapons.” Wardynski credited the social media monitoring for finding and breaking up of a six-or-seven-member gang called Wolfpack.

Four different students posing with handguns were included in internal SAFe program documents obtained by AL.com. None of the photos were taken when students were on school grounds. Three students were expelled and one was referred for counseling. WHNT added that so far, "20 students have been placed in alternative programs because of their social media posts."

Although Wardynski said, "People are very good about 'If you see something, say something'," the call could have come from some poser who duped school officials into believing it came from the NSA. Comments by parents and Huntsville residents' reactions are all over the place, from supportive to outrage about the program.

The secret snooping of students’ social media posts prompted “First Amendment expert” Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center in Washington, to say that someone “needs to lose his job. Lying to the public should be a firing offense.”

LoMonte is far from the only person to question if the NSA called the school with a tip about students, but if the NSA did make the call, then LoMonte said, "It's incumbent on someone to get to the bottom of whether the NSA is using its resources this way." He contacted Congress to investigate.

The Alabama school district is not the first to monitor students on and off campus. Last year, Geo Listening, a company that provides social media surveillance of students for the “safety” of those students, was hired by Glendale Unified School District in California. The company analyzes social media posts of 13,000 students at eight Glendale middle and high schools.

LoMonte did mention that mocking school officials is a “legitimate First Amendment issue,” but the “bigger issue is the NSA.” He said, “Somebody has some explaining to do. We really do need to get to the bottom of if this is the way the NSA is using its resources.”

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