It is another one of those existential dilemmas. We understand the deadly nature of the COVID-19 virus but as the nation tries to control the pandemic how much of our individual freedoms are we willing to give up?
Mandatory masks or no masks? If another stay-at-home mandate is issued do you comply? And what about freedom for the kids we send off to school?
Parents paying budget-busting college tuition should realize that students, nationwide, are currently the subject of unprecedented 24/7 surveillance being conducted in the name of crushing COVID.
Real Clear Investigations reports that after complaints of forced surveillance from students at dozens of U.S. universities the Electronic Frontier Foundation began to look into the matter. Gennie Gebhart of EFF said they discovered that students were asked to sign a code of conduct before starting the fall semester relinquishing basic privacy rights. “Along with ‘I will not cheat,’ or ‘I will not plagiarize,’ they also agreed to opt into a tracing app,” she said. “It’s not something you can say ‘no’ to if you want to go to school.”
Is this unconstitutional surveillance, or is it a proper practice done in the name of the greater good?
According to a report from the nonprofit consumer advocacy group Public Citizen more than 50 phone monitoring apps and other technologies have hit the post-pandemic market, advertised as essential tools to combat the spread of COVID-19.
University presidents, clearly reeling from the massive loss of tuition since the spring semester shutdown, scrambled to decide which student surveillance technique would best protect their campus.
Some schools, like Albion College in Michigan, chose an app named Aura students are required to download to their cellphone. Since kids take their phones everywhere Aura can easily monitor a student’s every move. Schools say it’s to facilitate “rapid contact tracing” should there be an outbreak. Students must also sign in to the app daily and self-report their health condition.
Oklahoma State University, using its own Wi-Fi system, developed analytics that track every employee and student with a phone as they move about the campus. The school promises the information gathered will be held in “extreme confidence” and used only if there is a need to contact someone who has been exposed to a person with the virus.
The state of Alabama developed its own tracing app for its university system using $30 million in federal aid from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act. Participation is optional, but everyone on campus is “strongly suggested and encouraged” to download the GuideSafe app so their movements can be tracked and they can upload daily health information.
The most physically invasive surveillance system is now in play at Oakland University in suburban Detroit. Students are asked to wear a quarter-sized disc called the BioButton, which is applied to the upper chest and tracks a person’s temperature, heart rate and respiratory rate. The idea is to identify a COVID-19 carrier before she/he displays full-blown symptoms and begins to shed the virus. BioButton is connected to the student’s phone so locations are also tracked. After an initial kerfuffle the school announced wearing the gadget is not mandatory.
Civil libertarians worry these surveillance technologies can be hacked, the information used to intimidate or blackmail. What if surveillance placed a student at or near the scene of a crime? Even if totally innocent they could get caught up in a reputation-damaging police matter.
College kids who know they are under surveillance might think twice about going to a crowded keg party, and that could be comforting to some parents. But again, do you think this monitoring is unlawful coercion of students or a medically sound technique to track COVID-19?
Before you answer consider that these technologies – specifically the adhesive BioButton chest disc, which must be replaced every 30 days – are being marketed as a “solution supporting safe return” to both “school and work.”
Advances in technology rarely fade away once accepted; they often become a mainstay. So, don’t be surprised if one day your boss requires you to sign away privacy rights, wear a device that keeps track of your movements and personal medical information. You cool with that?
www.DianeDimond.com; email to Diane@DianeDimond.com.