Colleges across the country are using new surveillance tools and following movements of students to blunt the spread of COVID-19. But while school administrators say the actions are necessary, civil libertarians fear the measures may last far beyond the pandemic.
Students at Oakland University in suburban Detroit are asked to wear the BioButton, a quarter-sized disk that attaches to the body and provides real-time health status to the developer, which will report to the administration anyone showing “early signs” of a coronavirus infection.
The school initially made the BioButton mandatory, but backed down after resistance from students, many of whom felt the device was an unnecessary tracking mechanism.
“This is something straight out of Fahrenheit 451 or 1984,” one student commented on the Change.org petition that successfully opposed the requirement.
Universities and colleges have millions of dollars at stake in keeping students on campus as they grapple with the financial losses that followed their decision to shut down last spring when the coronavirus was first detected. Most have now opened dorms – whose fees are crucial to school budgets -- and many teach a hybrid of in-person and online instruction.
More than 50 COVID-19 tracing apps and programs have been released since the pandemic began, according to a report from Public Citizen. Some of the technology has been rebranded from other uses and remarketed as an answer to quelling coronavirus transmission. Other tech options have been quickly developed and sold, with purveyors making pitches to schools eager to keep a lid on what they perceive as a threat to the lives of their students.
This tracking is separate from the demand by many schools that students quarantine themselves during their first two or three weeks on campus.
While the quarantines have received little pushback so far, the surveillance efforts roil some privacy and technology watchdogs, who claim a number of potential problems with government collection of data.
Following students with an implied threat for leaving campus without authorization or attending a party or event that the administration deems risky, critics say, is closer to surveillance than contact tracing.
And the tech adoption policies typically don’t give students a choice with regard to being tracked.
Gennie Gebhart and her colleagues at the Electronic Frontier Foundation have researched technology being used by dozens of universities after hearing from students, who felt they were being forcefully surveilled.
“Students at schools where these apps are required were asked to sign a code of conduct before starting the fall semester,” said Gebhart, who is the acting activism director at the EFF. “Along with ‘I will not cheat,’ or ‘I will not plagiarize,’ they also agreed to opt into an app. It’s not something you can say ‘no’ to if you want to go to school.”
She points to the University of Massachusetts system, where students agree to “download and activate any required UMass approved public health applications, or access required digital health platforms through web browsers.”
UMass spokesman Edward Blaguszewski did not respond to a phone message or email.
The tracking may be needed, given the health emergency, said Fred Cate, senior fellow at Indiana University’s Center for Applied Cybersecurity Research. And if the tech worked, it would likely see widespread adoption.
“The biggest issue so far is skepticism that the [apps] work,” Cate said. “If there were one that worked, and did so consistently, we and many other universities would use it.”
Federal coronavirues money is helping driving the effort. The state of Alabama spent $30 million of its CARES Act funding to develop its own health monitoring/tracing app. GuideSafe is used by the state university system and, once downloaded, it tracks a student’s movements. It is “voluntary, but strongly suggested and encouraged,” according to a university system directive.
“We call this exposure notification,” said Sue Feldman, a professor in the School of Health Professions at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. “It is not tracking or tracing location or movement, we try to make that very clear. It is a notification app.”
GuideSafe includes a portal called Healthcheck, which requires students to report each day whether they have symptoms and if they have been in contact with anyone with the virus. Students who fail to fill out and submit the Healthcheck form for three days receive daily emails and texts from the school. Log-in information and email addresses are also cross-referenced every time someone signs on to the university’s Wi-Fi network, which helps to identify scofflaws.
“When you log in to the system on campus, they know where you log in from, and if you log in and have not completed Healthcheck, that’s not a good thing,” said Feldman, who asserted that despite the personal messages via email or text. “GuideSafe never knows your name.”
Universities have tracked students for years, using key cards (which students use to access campus buildings), the university wireless service and through social media monitoring algorithms, among other things.
At the corporate level, where employees are paid to show up, mandatory tracking is hard to argue with. College students, in contrast, are paying tens of thousands of dollars to attend school. Threatened with the loss of scholarships or even readmission if they decide to take a semester off, they could face a choice between surrendering to the school mandates, including tracking, or starting their college career over again, possibly elsewhere.
“The power imbalance … for students, is in favor of the [college],” said Burcu Kilic, director of Public Citizen’s Digital Rights Program.
One of the schools that demand students download a tracking app this fall is Albion College, where 1,900 students and parents have signed a petition to make the use of Aura optional.
Four other colleges have signed deals to use the app, with 20 more considering it, said Brian O'Neill, a Philadelphia entrepreneur who funded Aura.
“If you are serious about managing the COVID-19 virus for your population, then our software is for you,” O'Neill told RealClearInvestigations. “If you aren’t, then we are not for you.”
He declined to name the potential customers.
The Aura app provides regular access to students’ location, which the college contends is needed to track the spread of any exposure. Students, who must sign a release ceding some privacy rights under the Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) are alerted if they come in contact with someone who has tested positive for the virus.
“There was acrimony in the beginning because students were getting into this strict protocol,” O’Neill said. ” We just wanted to give people the opportunity to experience college life.”
Albion spokesman Chuck Carlson declined to comment.
The coronavirus threat is expected to subside in the U.S. as vaccines hit the market.
The tracking apps, though, have no expiration date.
“You would hope they would stop, but usually, once you cede power to the state, the state doesn’t give up that power,” said Josh Blackman, a constitutional law professor at the South Texas College of Law Houston.
Also looming is the possibility that the data collected now will be “repurposed,” added Kilic of the Digital Rights Program.
“This [information] is going to be used for the future,” she said. “They will not stop using this technology. People make money on this and we are creating an extreme surveillance system.”