University of Sydney caught out spying on staff and students

May 26, 2021
Screenshot of an email by University of Sydney management showing a Tweet from Dr David Brophy. Credit: Honi Soit

The University of Sydney SRC (Student Representative Council) has obtained evidence showing that the University of Sydney engaged in surveillance of staff and students.

Documents obtained by the SRC under the Government Information (Public Access) Act 2009 (also known as GIPA) show the university has engaged in surveillance of staff and students who were organising against course and staff cuts last year.

The GIPA documents show the university used Dataminr's AI information alert system. Dataminr uses artificial intelligence technology to “detect the earliest signals of high-impact events and emerging risks from within publicly available data.”

Dataminr is used by the Central Intelligence Agency, United States police departments, news agencies, private companies and government institutions. The tech company is a partner of Twitter, which provides it with unlimited access to the “firehose” — a constant stream of all available data from a source in real time. This allowed Dataminr to scan every tweet.

Dataminr uses its platform to surveil Twitter for keywords and other indicators of supposedly high risk activities. It was used to try and disrupt last year’s Black Lives Matter in the US, by providing authorities with information from protesters’ social media.

The GIPA documents show that the university used Dataminr to monitor student and staff on Twitter and Facebook and create lists of those attending protests which were automatically sent as email alerts to the university’s administration officers.

In particular, tweets in support of student activities by senior lecturer in Modern Chinese History David Brophy and law professor Simon Rice were monitored and shared with university operations staff.

During the protests of that year, Rice was pushed to the ground by police and then fined $1000.

It is likely that the university’s Dataminr information was shared with the NSW Police. At the time of the education protests, they had routinely been entering campus in big numbers. They were widely criticised for using excessive force at the education protests.

The GIPA documents also showed that the university was aware of the authoritarian nature of the NSW Police operation to quash the protests — including deploying undercover police — and being physically aggressive.

Sydney University Student Representative Council president Swapnik Sanagavarapu told Green Left that management's actions “contradict the spirit” of the university.

Sanagavarapu said that students and staff are outraged, but not deterred, by the revelations and would continue to assert their freedom of assembly and right to protect their data.

Staff and students organised an action on May 11 to protest mangement's surveillance and its attempt to suppress activism.

While it is unclear whether the university still uses Dataminr, management has affirmed that the platform was “trialled briefly”.

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