Editor’s Note – As the technological realm becomes more pervasive, whom can we trust? Each week, Liberty Nation brings new insight into the fraudulent use of personal data, breaches of privacy, and attempts to filter our perception.
Should schools and colleges be reopening or remaining empty? As these institutions ponder how to deal with the new school year amid the lingering Coronavirus pandemic, it’s perhaps no surprise that the answer is shaping up to be mass surveillance of the student populace – at least at some higher education campuses.
Contact tracing has mostly been a bust across the United States, but the new college year may be able to kickstart the flagging tracking efforts. As Politico recently put it: “Unlike states who can only ask nicely that their residents use these apps, colleges may be able to require students to download them.”
The University of Arizona, for instance, is testing an opt-in app that uses Bluetooth proximity tracking to follow users’ social interactions. Students and staff will also be required to complete a daily “Wildcat Wellcheck” before entering campus, which involves answering a series of health-screening questions by text message.
But does that go far enough? Not according to some institutes. One liberal arts college thinks it has the answer to preventing COVID-19 outbreaks – too bad that response has been hit with a parade of privacy and security complaints.
Track Student Movements 24/7
Some universities have dithered over how to manage their student population in the time of COVID, but not Michigan’s Albion College. Albion was decisive in its June announcement that the semester would begin as usual in August – but it wasn’t until the end of July that it revealed its plans for how to limit the contagion. All students would have to download and use the contact-tracing app Aura, which uses GPS to track user locations 24 hours a day.
Not only that, but students are required to stay within campus grounds for the entire semester. If a student leaves the campus without prior permission, Aura will notify the college staff, and the “offender” will be suspended. The alleged goal is to create a “Coronavirus bubble” that would insulate the campus – but the staff is still allowed to travel in and out of the perimeter.
Students who don’t wish to be tracked constantly, who may like to actually leave campus every once in a while, or visit a business not included on an approved list, will have to defer their education, since breaking the rules could result in suspension or the ominous threat of removal from campus. While some schools have opted to expand online classes this coming semester, Albion is not one of them and will conduct only in-person lessons – effectively holding students hostage to its surveillance program.
Unsurprisingly, families aren’t too happy about this, claiming it violates student privacy and freedom. One parent started an online petition to make the Aura app optional and “let Albion College know that what they are doing is not right and extremely unfair to these students.” So far, this petition has garnered over 1,800 signatures, a number greater than the approximately 1,500-member undergraduate student body at the college.
Another parent complained about mandatory COVID testing at the college – the results of which will be sent to government authorities if required. The angry parent told the Washington Free Beacon: “The school wants my daughter to sign a form consenting to specimen collection and lab testing. I have a ton of concern with that … Why is the state of Michigan’s contact tracing not enough?”
“I think it’s more creepy than anything and has caused me a lot of anxiety about going back,” one anonymous student told TechCrunch. As if all this wasn’t invasive enough, an in-depth report by TechCrunch also showed that the Aura app had at least two major security flaws. The issues have been fixed, but it certainly brings into question the safety of the app as a whole.
Albion isn’t the only college to offer a contact-tracing app to its pupils, although it appears to be the only one forcing it upon them.
Perhaps things could go even further. Another Michigan college, Oakland University, is pioneering a BioButton wearable to be stuck onto the chest. The medical-grade device collects data on skin temperature, heart rate, respiratory rate, as well as – according to the developer’s website – activity levels, sleep, and body position continuously for up to 90 days. Not only does the coin-sized apparatus measure the body’s vital signs, but it also comes with a handy Bluetooth contact-tracing feature and a compatible app for daily health questionnaires.
Despite an initial impression that the BioButtons would be mandatory at Oakland U, it has since been stated that they will be optional. The original intention is hazy: the college seemingly hoped the information on its webpage would go unnoticed – the students were not informed by email. The institution later clarified on its Facebook page: “The information that is gathered from the device is only made available to the wearer. In this way, the specific data is kept private. The wearing of this device is not mandatory.”
Again, it is not shocking that the idea of a mandatory body monitoring system was unpopular. Resident Assistant Tyler Dixon quickly started a petition against compulsory deployment, saying it “just seemed a step too far in terms of privacy.” Dixon’s petition attracted just under 2,500 signatures, stating:
“A large portion of students feel that this is in violation of their privacy and some students have stated that their rejections of this idea come from a religious basis. Moreover, the new idea (evidently a large adjustment) was not mentioned but instead put further into the website for individuals to stumble across.”
According to David Stone, chief research officer at Oakland University, staff and students will be strongly encouraged to wear the BioButtons to limit COVID outbreaks. Originally designed for high-risk medical patients, the device has now been adapted to detect the early symptoms of COVID-19. “If this device does what it says it can do and can alert people before they have a symptom before they’re shedding virus. That strikes us as a really valuable tool in trying to battle the spread of coronavirus,” Stone said.
Encroaching College Surveillance
The Coronavirus pandemic may be boosting college surveillance, but this trend was emerging before the COVID-19 became an issue in the U.S. Liberty Nation reported in February on the University of Missouri and almost 40 other colleges using the SpotterEDU app to monitor students’ attendance and, allegedly, location information. Non-profit project Ban Facial Recognition has also collected a list of at least ten universities around the U.S. using facial recognition on their students.
Advertisers have known for decades that the best way to guarantee the longest life for a product is to target the youth – and if you want to make a change in society, getting young people used to it is a sure-fire way to bring your desired outcome into the future.
That’s all for this week from Tech Tyranny. Check back next Monday to find out what’s happening in the digital realm and how it impacts you.
Read more from Laura Valkovic.