Business Is Brisk for Vermont Company Trying to Stop School Shooters | Tech | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Business Is Brisk for Vermont Company Trying to Stop School Shooters

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Gary Margolis - MATTHEW THORSEN
  • Matthew Thorsen
  • Gary Margolis

A Burlington-based company that monitors social media networks for threats to schools has seen a surge of new clients in the weeks since a teen gunned down 17 students and staff at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.

It's a morbid enterprise, but Social Sentinel founder and CEO Gary Margolis admits that business "is definitely booming" as schools nationwide look to add security measures.

"We don't cause the problems, but gosh, if we can help those who are hurting, we're going to do everything we can," Margolis said.

The 20-year law enforcement veteran launched his company four years ago to provide online security for universities, schools, and large venues such as concert halls and sports stadiums.

Social Sentinel's algorithms scan a dozen social media platforms, including Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, to identify phrases or words that indicate a threat, such as "kill" or "shoot." Thousands of words make up an ever-evolving "language of harm" library, Margolis said, though he wouldn't provide a list.

If the technology turns up a threat against a university building or a concert venue that is a Social Sentinel client, the company sends out an alert to notify school administrators or security staff. "Our job is simply to make that assessment," said Margolis.

It's up to the client to discern whether the comment warrants a follow-up or call to the police.

Margolis believes the service, which he compares to a home alarm system, would have flagged Nikolas Cruz's social media posts before his rampage last month. The Florida teen's posts frequently featured pictures and messages about guns. His erratic behavior caught the attention of friends and neighbors, who reported him to the local police as well as the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

"It's the exact reason we founded Social Sentinel," Margolis told Fox Business News on February 15 during one of several national media interviews he's done since the massacre.

In his nondescript office in Burlington's Innovation Center of Vermont, the 49-year-old CEO is no less evangelical, leaning forward as he speaks. The South End shop is home to several dozen employees who work from cubicles, staring at large-screen computers. They're working for clients in 24 states.

Margolis wasn't always on the digital side of law enforcement. He served as a police officer in both Burlington and South Burlington before becoming chief of the University of Vermont police force. He later founded a security-consulting firm, Margolis Healy, which he sold last year. In 2011 he started Campus Sentinel, which aggregated crime and safety data at universities around the country.

The company rebranded as Social Sentinel in 2014. UVM was one of its early clients. The school gets between four and 10 alerts each month, according to UVM deputy chief Tim Bilodeau. He said the notices have been "useful" in preparing for big concerts and speaking events and have helped campus police intervene when a student is at risk of self-harm. To date, though, the service hasn't thwarted a crime or large-scale threat.

Another client, Burlington Police Chief Brandon del Pozo, gave Social Sentinel a lukewarm review. His department pays the company $7,000 per year, and the chief said he can't remember a single time when his officers responded to one of its alerts. Police did make use of the technology last month by setting additional search terms as Burlington High School prepared to raise the Black Lives Matter flag, a controversial event that did not require law enforcement.

The three-year deal with Social Sentinel is set to expire at the end of June, and the police department won't be renewing, said del Pozo.

"It hasn't been as useful as we had hoped," the chief said. He plans to swap it out with the database tool CLEAR to assist in the department's detective work.

Such online aids are necessary in modern-day policing, according to Vermont's school safety liaison officer, Rob Evans. Margolis Healy employs Evans through a contract with the state, but he reports to both the Vermont Department of Public Safety and the Agency of Education.

"The folks that perpetrate these types of crimes have these conversations or display behavior — there's a post or a text," Evans said. "If we had only connected the dots beforehand, maybe there's a chance to do some intervention."

Margolis, who has two teenage children, added: "You have an entire generation ... communicating everything on social media."

Local school threats have increased dramatically since the Valentine's Day shooting in Parkland. Days later, Vermont police arrested 18-year-old Jack Sawyer and charged him with attempted murder related to a shooting plot against a Fair Haven school. Two juveniles were disciplined for school threats in Essex. Threats have roiled 10 other Vermont schools since Parkland, according to Evans.

Margolis wouldn't say whether any of the threatened Vermont schools were clients, but he did reveal that the number of Social Sentinel alerts generated since the shooting has doubled. Revenues in 2017 were up 75 percent from the prior year.

What schools pay for the service depends on their size; it's usually between $1 and $1.50 per student, per year, Margolis said. The company employs "several dozen" workers and scans a billion public social media posts each day. Posts made on a "private" Facebook page don't trigger alerts, according to Margolis.

Margolis was guarded about some company specifics. He declined to list which social media platforms Social Sentinel scans  — other than Twitter, Facebook and Instagram — and would not show a reporter how the technology works in order to retain its "competitive advantage."

Early on, the company struggled with its public image, trying to strike the right balance between privacy and protection. A 2014 editorial in North Carolina's Wilson Times criticized the program for snooping on students' social media pages at the expense of taxpayers. "It continues a disturbing trend of extending public schools' disciplinary authority into the home," the editorial reads.

Margolis has shifted his rhetoric accordingly. The company "scans" for threats — "We're making sure we're not surveilling, monitoring, following, investigating," he said. "It might be a matter of semantics, but it's important to us."

The general public is watching, too, noted Jon Rajewski, director of the Senator Leahy Center for Digital Investigation at Champlain College. Rajewski pointed to a 2016 case involving the American Civil Liberties Union about a similar company, Geofeedia, which was providing information to police to monitor protests. Amid backlash, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram refused to provide their information to Geofeedia, forcing the company to change its business strategy.

Rajewski said Social Sentinel has found success by aggregating information that is otherwise publicly available.

"They make it a nice turnkey solution that people can use right out of the box," he said.

As the online landscape changes, Margolis said, Social Sentinel will, too.

"We're evolving at the pace that social media is changing — how people use it, how we communicate, what people are saying, what services they use," he said. The company is adding foreign languages to its database and is constantly updating the library of terms that trigger an alert.

The sad reality, Margolis said, is that school threats aren't going away. "We identified an issue, a need — and we were right," he said.

Correction, March 14, 2018: A previous version of this story mischaracterized how Social Sentinel scans online posts; its algorithms do that. Further, Gary Margolis contended that the company would have flagged Nikolas Cruz's posts before the Florida rampage. A previous version of the story incorrectly characterized his position.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Trigger Warning"

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