Covid-19 Can’t Be an Excuse for Back-to-School Surveillance

‘Students are already one of the most surveilled demographics in the country’

Photo: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

This op-ed was written by Albert Cahn, executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, a New York–based civil rights and police accountability organization.

For American colleges, Covid-19 has brought an existential crisis. They have wrestled for months with the question of reopening in the fall, balancing the benefits of in-person instruction against the deadly threat of the pandemic. But for many, the hemming and hawing may be for naught: The Trump administration has said it will pressure schools to reopen, and a heartless new ruling from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) on Monday may strip international students of their visas if they attend only online classes. For students, this means the choice between campus Covid-19 exposure and deportation. For colleges and universities, it means the choice between protecting student and staff safety and potential bankruptcy.

College campuses have always been microcosms of the larger societies they serve. At their best, universities create new frameworks for inclusion, equity, and integration. But at their worst, they amplify many of the inequalities that define American life. For universities in the age of Covid-19, the pandemic will push these two visions of higher education even farther apart, as universities face unprecedented pressures to protect their campuses and quickly return to the business of teaching. And for those institutions that do choose to reopen, it means that they will have to decide between evidence-based public health responses, like manual contact tracing, and new, untested, and highly invasive technology solutions.

Even before the ICE decision, many American universities saw the return to in-person instruction not as a matter of pedagogy or students’ quality of life, but as an existential requirement. American universities are a multibillion dollar industry, but while a small number of schools boast exorbitant endowments, those institutions are far from the norm. Even for those with hundreds of millions in reserves, that isn’t simply cash in a savings account. University endowments are a tangled web of illiquid assets governed by thousands of restrictions from donors. In short: Endowments aren’t ready cash.

Many universities will be forced to reopen sooner rather than later, fearful that students will be unwilling to pay sticker price for an online education. And in this economic environment, as donations dry up and the cost of operations increase, some will try to go down the easy route and provide safety on the cheap. They’ll hear the pitch from high-tech companies that promise to keep campus Covid-19-free, and for those that take the bait, it will be a disaster.

For universities that fall victim to Silicon Valley’s surveillance siren song, back-to-school shopping may include invasive tracking devices that make campus even more segregated and less welcoming. Firms like Estimote and Rightcrowd have tried to repurpose existing Bluetooth tracking product lines into Covid-19 contract tracing solutions. Meanwhile Amazon and other tech giants have turned to thermal imaging and computer vision as their tools of choice.

But there is also an opportunity here... Evidence-based, culturally informed contact tracing techniques… will be a chance to make higher education more, not less, equitable and inclusive.

Students are already one of the most surveilled demographics in the country. From the moment they set foot onto campus, universities collect data about their every move: from the buildings they enter and exit, to what they eat, and whether or not they download class readings. Some universities have already begun to engage in even more invasive data collection practices, turning students’ phones into location trackers and monitoring their web browsing for mental health warning signs. Invasive contact tracing added on top of that will create the perfect storm of campus surveillance, likely to harm students and staff from communities who are already heavily surveilled and policed.

But there is also an opportunity here. For those universities that adopt evidence-based, culturally informed contact tracing techniques, the return to campus will be a chance to make higher education more, not less, equitable and inclusive.

The truth is that we know how to trace the spread of diseases. It’s something that we’ve done for centuries. What is hard to comprehend is the price tag. Culturally competent, manual contact tracing will require a sustained investment in disease detectives who mirror the diversity of the communities that they hope to protect. It takes time to hire, train, and assign workers. It takes time to build up community trust in the contact tracing process, but that long-term investment will pay dividends throughout this pandemic and even beyond.

Every campus will need a small army of tracers who can quickly gain the trust of those who are infected with Covid-19, learn who they may have contacted, and convince those who have been exposed to get tested and, if needed, quarantine. The same trust that is at the heart of manual contact tracing is also indispensable to a welcoming, inclusive, and vibrant campus. It’s the same trust that is needed to connect campuses to surrounding communities. But trust is also one of the first things that will be eroded in this pandemic if we resort to invasive and discriminatory surveillance.

One thing that is also certain about manual contact tracing is that it’s expensive. But the cost is not only a valuable investment in public health, it’s also a crucial form of economic stimulus. At a time when record numbers of Americans are out of work, this is a jobs program that will help our country on multiple fronts. Unfortunately, it’s a jobs program that many universities will not be able to afford on their own.

For those elite universities that can afford contact tracing programs, it’s only right that they be expected to foot the bill. At a time when so many Americans face abject poverty, there’s no justification to give Harvard or Yale a bailout. But for state universities, community colleges, and other public institutions, cities and states will need to shoulder this financial burden. And for those smaller schools in more remote regions, only federal funding will allow for schools to truly keep their students safe. Some states have already sought permission to use money appropriated under the federal CARES Act to support state schools.

If we fail to make a comprehensive investment into holistic and equitable campus contact tracing, it will only exacerbate the worst qualities of modern American education. Pandemic preparedness will become yet another sign of the growing division between elite universities and other colleges. Wealthy students will see their health and privacy protected, as poorer students and students of color face invasive and inaccurate tracking.

This isn’t the future that educators, lawmakers, or students want, but it’s the future we’ll endure if we don’t act soon. Students are already protesting against invasive surveillance tech on campus, but without the public’s support, their rights may merely become the latest victim of the unending pandemic.

Founder and Executive Director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project (S.T.O.P.) at the Urban Justice Center Twitter:@CahnLawNY

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