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Tech Tyranny: Micromanaging Society

Tracking students, post-Brexit U.K. disputes, and Chinese drones.

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.

Colleges Tracking Student Locations

Poor grades must be a problem at the University of Missouri because the institution has come out with a plan to track student attendance: force them to install a location-tracking app on their phones.

The app, called SpotterEDU, is already used for the college’s athletes who are in academic trouble, but a test pilot is set to start across the campus, regardless of students’ academic performance. According to a report by The Kansas City Star, staff volunteered to use the app in their classes, but students will not be given a choice – even those who don’t have phones will be somehow subject to the program. “A student will have to participate in the recording of attendance,” said Jim Spain, the university’s vice provost for undergraduate studies. “It’s the way of leveraging technology to provide us with timely information … It has been proven that class attendance and student success are linked.”

“[Spotter] is a lot less intrusive than how we, all of us, are tracked and tagged electronically every day,” Spain said. “We have not taken away a student’s freedom to not come to class, but if they are not in class the professor is just going to know.”

Privacy advocates are worried, however. Sara Baker, policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri, said: “We have deep privacy concerns about this.” She questioned “what sort of privacy rights students might be giving up to attend public universities” and what other information would be collected on students, “like monitoring which students are participating in protests.”

Former MU assistant basketball coach and SpotterEDU inventor Rick Carter, however, says “If a student is not in class we cannot tell you where he is. One thing we are really big on is student privacy.” The app works via Bluetooth beacons in classrooms and apparently does not contain GPS tracking software – however, it is unclear whether the app can access a phone’s inbuilt GPS. One reviewer in the Apple app store claimed the app had tracked his or her location 88 times, mostly over the weekend. Another claimed the app repeatedly and inaccurately marked them as tardy, while others say it wouldn’t work at all.

According to Carter, the app is being used in nearly 40 schools. This isn’t the only method colleges are using to track student movements. According to technology reporter Drew Harwell, some colleges are using Wi-Fi networks to log up to 6,000 location data points for a student per day, and even calculate “risk scores” based on how often a student visits the library or the cafeteria.

As asked by Robby Pfeifer, a sophomore at Virginia Commonwealth University, “Is it just going to keep progressing until we’re micromanaged every second of the day?”

Defiant Britain Ignores U.S. Wishes, Twice

With the U.K. having officially “gotten Brexit done,” hopes were high that it would be quick to negotiate a trade agreement with the U.S. There are a few sticking points, however, that may halt or slow down such a deal – with technology being a major source of dispute between the two nations.

The first issue is that Britain, as well as other European countries, has become increasingly frustrated at the lack of tax revenues it can collect from Silicon Valley tech corporations. Starting in April, the U.K. plans to institute a 2% tax on “the revenues of search engines, social media platforms and online marketplaces which derive value from UK users.” Global revenues are over £500 million (U.S. $655m) and more than £25 million (U.S. $33m) is gained from UK users. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin recently met with U.K. Chancellor Sajid Javid, and, as LN’s Andrew Moran described, the former was not pleased:

“Javid has clarified that the levy is only temporary until a global agreement is instituted that explains how to regulate online juggernauts. However, Mnuchin noted that the new tax is ‘discriminatory,’ ‘not appropriate,’ and contains ‘violations to our tax treaties.’ He also threatened to slap new tariffs on British carmakers as a means to encourage England to ditch the tax.”

Whether Mnuchin likes it or not, this is not the first – and is unlikely to be the last – such tax. In July 2019, France passed a 3% digital services tax that affected high-earning Silicon Valley mainstays, much to the chagrin of the U.S. government. “If anybody taxes [tech companies], it should be their home Country [sic], the USA. We will announce a substantial reciprocal action on Macron’s foolishness shortly,” Trump tweeted at the time. He also instructed the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative to launch an investigation, which concluded – in December 2019 – that the tax “discriminates against U.S. companies, is inconsistent with prevailing principles of international tax policy, and is unusually burdensome for affected U.S. companies.” The office is currently considering whether to place tariffs “of up to 100 percent on certain products of France” as a result.

The other issue of contention is the U.K.’s recent decision to allow “high risk” Chinese company Huawei to contribute to part of its 5G network infrastructure, despite U.S. fears that doing so could open “back doors” to espionage from the Chinese government, which reserves the right to access Huawei data.

Despite the disagreement, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo traveled to the U.K. and endorsed Britain’s ongoing participation in the “Five Eyes” intelligence-sharing network, a partnership of Anglosphere nations, stating that he is “very confident that our two nations will find a way to work together to resolve this difference.”

“With respect to information and the Five Eyes relationship, that relationship is deep, it is strong, it will remain,” he added. “All the elements of the Five Eyes will work together on this to ensure that the systems are sufficiently secure. We will never permit American national security information to go across a network that we don’t have trust and confidence in, that’s the standard.”

However, he did tell reporters, “When you allow the information of your citizens or the national security information of your citizens to transit a network that the Chinese Communist Party has a legal mandate to obtain, it creates risk.” He also said on London radio station LBC, “We view the intrusion of the Chinese Communist Party into information technology systems as a very great risk; a national security risk as well as a core privacy risk.”

Chinese Drones Give Orders to People on the Street?

Remaining with China, the nation continues to struggle with the outbreak of coronavirus 2019-nCoV, and local authorities may have unveiled a new method of telling residents how to contain the disease: Flying drones. According to the Global Times, China’s national English-language newspaper, cities and villages are using drones fitted with loud-speakers to patrol public spaces. In a video provided by the paper, one can hear voices, in extremely polite tones, admonish residents for failing to wear face masks, and deliver instructions to get off the streets. One scene seems to depict a traffic officer observing citizens in person and giving orders via radio to a speaker-equipped drone, while other shots seem to be filmed from flying drones operated remotely – whether by the government or nosy citizens is unclear.

Is the footage genuine? Is this a misguided attempt by the Chinese government-operated media to reassure a foreign audience that it is taking steps to contain a disease amid rumors the country has been less than upfront about the situation? Judging from responses to the Global Times’ tweet, people are not so much comforted as disturbed that they may have been given a peek into a future where flying machines controlled by distant, faceless bureaucrats surveil the public and bark orders from above.

That’s all for this week from Tech Tyranny. Check back in next Monday to find out what’s happening in the digital realm and how it impacts you.

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Read more from Laura Valkovic.

Read More From Laura Valkovic

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