School District Security Head Takes Call From NSA, Starts Secret Student Social Media Monitoring Program

from the wut dept

Of all the things that have never happened, this is one of them.

A secret program to monitor students’ online activities began quietly in Huntsville schools, following a phone call from the NSA, school officials say.

Huntsville schools Superintendent Casey Wardynski says the system began monitoring social media sites 18 months ago, after the National Security Agency tipped the school district to a student making violent threats on Facebook.

Huntsville City Schools’ head of security was the man who answered the call.

Al Lankford, the city’s longtime school security officer, told that he took the NSA phone call. He said security officers went to the high school and eventually searched the boy’s car.

“We found a very good size knife and the student was expelled,” said Wardynski, a former U.S. Army colonel appointed as superintendent in Huntsville in 2011.

Normally, I’m not much for NSA boilerplate denials, but the one issued here by the agency rings true.

NSA did not acknowledge placing such a call. “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,” said Vanee Vines, public affairs specialist with the NSA, on Monday.

While the NSA may be is gathering data on Americans (on purpose) as well as their communications (supposedly inadvertently), one thing it doesn’t do is call up school district security staffers and tell them about threats being made on Facebook. The FBI may do that, as may local law enforcement (remember kids, public posts are public), but the NSA generally doesn’t get involved in the policing of the nation’s student body.

More from the NSA spokesperson, who must have loved delivering this snarky line after months and months of denying more serious allegations.

“Moreover, NSA does not make recommendations regarding school safety programs,” said Vines via email.

What likely happened was some civilian reported the threat and name-dropped the security agency in order to boost credibility. Or a student prank went horribly right. But school district reps aren’t backing down from this highly-unlikely narrative. The superintendent thinks it’s legit because there was a terrorism nexus.

“There was a foreign connection,” said Wardynski, explaining why the NSA would contact Huntsville schools. He said the student in Huntsville had made the online threats while chatting online with a group that included an individual in Yemen.

Whether you buy the story or not (and if you do, you’re probably on the district’s security staff), there’s still the fact that the school is actively monitoring its students’ social media postings. All well and good as far as monitoring goes, but it’s also acting on what’s being posted off-campus, which isn’t as acceptable.

Internal documents explaining the program, obtained by, show examples of four different students posing on Facebook with handguns. None are on school grounds. Three are listed as expelled. One was referred for counseling.

Not a good idea. The school district shouldn’t be policing the outside world. This is beyond the boundaries of its jurisdiction. Some of these individuals could legally own a gun under state law and there’s nothing on the books prohibiting them from posing with them. Going beyond the big, bad stuff like teens with guns, there’s the fact that the school is looking at everything being posted and making disciplinary decisions.

This super secret (even board members hadn’t heard of it before now), NSA-ordained monitoring program has zero documentation available to the public (or parents) outside of a horrendous logo and a few screenshots [embedded below]. There’s not much in the way of accountability. Will the program be used to reprimand, suspend or otherwise hassle students who do other things that violate school policies? The superintendent says it’s strictly limited to “threats against the school,” but with all the information gathered being from public forums, there’s no real reason this unwritten, informal guideline will be respected. In fact, the documents obtained show that this statement isn’t even true.

He said the focus is on gangs, threats of violence and threats of suicide.

[Mission creep.]

They found six other photos showing the student flashing suspected gang signs. “SAFe recommendation: Consider (student) for expulsion.”

[Direct threat how?]

The superintendent also cites “see something, say something,” and says students and parents are “pretty good about that.” If so, then the program is redundant. Real threats against the school would be reported. A teenager photographed holding a gun is not a threat against the school, in and of itself, but the school is treating these postings as if they are.

The superintendent also claims the program helped break up a “gang,” so it’s obviously already generated great ROI (eyeroll). Said “gang” was “six or seven people” scattered amongst various schools, all related to each other.

The supposed call from the NSA is akin to a “road to Damascus” conversion. The school security team received an (almost literal) “higher calling” to be The Little Surveillance Team That Could and went forward to do “good works.” Not by God, but by the power vested in the NSA’s phone calls, Huntsville’s crack team of teen watchers is weeding out students based on gun ownership and finger arrangement. If you’re already inclined to extend your monitoring of students all the way into their homes and mobile devices, all it takes is the smallest step of faith to believe that the National Security Agency wants you to save your school from dangerous students who utter threats in the presence of a Yemeni.

[Credit for opening ‘shop: Rob Beschizza at Boing Boing.]

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Comments on “School District Security Head Takes Call From NSA, Starts Secret Student Social Media Monitoring Program”

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Ninja (profile) says:

The problem of monitoring social networks is pretty much the same NSA collecting all poses. Some posts, communications, attitudes placed out of context can be interpreted in horrifyingly wrong ways leading to all sorts of issues. Suppose they went to the house of one of the students and their father collects guns. Suppose he got an unloaded gun to show to his kid’s friends and then they decided to take pics just for fun with the guns. What’s the bad in that? Sure law enforcement could knock the door and check out for context or chat with the teens, just in case but that’s as far as it should go and school should not be involved.

Maybe if people started minding their own business for once the world would be a better place.

Anonymous Coward says:

Look like you’re doing something wrong to someone while not being a person in a position of power, maximum punishment.
Blatantly doing something wrong while being a person in a seat of power? Nothing happens.

This is why these things continue to happen.

Kids are getting expelled from school for looking like they could pose a danger.
School staff who are actually doing real damage are going unpunished.
This should be the other way around.

zip says:

good thing the "NSA agent" didn't suggest a strip search

I would have assumed that any idiot would know that the NSA is not (and has never been) involved in law enforcement of any kind. And anyway, law enforcement officers (of all kinds) will always arrive in person — they basically don’t use telephones.

It’s scary how easily people are duped by someone on the telephone claiming to be law enforcement authorities — and will obediently do whatever they’re asked. Like that famous McDonalds strip search prank call.

Joseph Ratliff (profile) says:

They have the NSA's playbook though...

Seems to me, this security team at the school is using pages out of the NSA’s playbook, whether the NSA called them or not.

They are using the tried and true “But look at what our program has stopped!” routine.

I don’t care about what our over-reaching security programs are stopping in this country … if I wanted to trade away my privacy for “more security,” I wouldn’t be an American.

Our freedom IS our security dammit. That is, until our security becomes our prison.

DV Henkel-Wallace (profile) says:

wait, a _knife_???

A kid with a knife? Woah, stop the presses!

Unless this were an area of some special interest, like a high level of gang activity, I would expect a kid to have a pocketknife. Hell, I always have one, plus a bigger one in the car (along with a lot of other tools, like tire iron, hammer, screwdriver etc), and I am hardly, as far as I am aware, a terrorist.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: wait, a _knife_???

You might be!

I was arrested once, kind of wrong place at the wrong time, my car broke down on the side of the road right next to a school at night and the cop said I “looked suspicious being near a school late at night”.

He went through my car and found a Philips screwdriver and a roll of electrical tape and duct tape.

His exact words were, “Are you stealing car stereos? Cause why else would you need these?”

My response was, “Uh, cause my car breaks down and I can fix almost all the issues it randomly has with those three things. Plus the screwdriver opens my trunk since it has no key.”

His response was, “Are you a certified mechanic? Cause there’s no reason for you to have those things.”

I couldn’t believe he’d said that, so naturally the snark came out, “No. I am, however, an 18 year old male driving a 1965 Mustang. It goes without saying I should know a thing or two about fixing my car on the side of the road if it breaks down. You don’t need to be certified or even a professional mechanic to do that, it’s called having a father who taught you important things to know.”

Straight to jail I went! Where he got a detective to do the same thing. “Clearly, you are a car thief and steal stereos and we have witnesses and surveillance footage of you doing so. Now confess! Also sign this paper which I’ve filled out, despite not being able to read it since we took your glasses and put them in evidence.”

That was a long night believe you me. Eventually I got out, without signing a damn thing. Oh, and someone stole $50 from my wallet while it was in evidence. But I was the “criminal”. /s

So as far as I can see, you might be a terrorist for having tools in your car. Or at least a car thief.

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