Vassar College student E.L. received a notification on his phone this month with a gentle reminder to turn on his device’s location tracking. The junior, who asked that only his initials be used, is one of the 2,120 students who returned to Vassar’s campus for in-person instruction this fall semester. The message, which came from the school’s official app, referred to PathCheck GPS+, a contact-tracing app created at MIT that is now being piloted at colleges around the country.
“If you download the PathCheck app (iOs/Android), make sure to fully enable location services when it asks, or make the change manually through your device settings,” read the notification. It went on to assure students that their location data would be saved exclusively on their phone, with the option of sharing it with health officials in the event they test positive for the coronavirus.
In an interview with OneZero, E.L. said the school’s partnership with the PathCheck app felt “super weird” and “very police-adjacent.” Still, he had expected some sort of surveillance to happen as a condition of his return. Students who returned to campus already had to sign a pledge promising to comply with a whole new set of health and safety standards. They agreed not to step outside the school’s 1,000-acre campus for the entire fall semester, which ends on November 20. Other requirements include mask-wearing, social distancing of six feet, a mandatory Covid-19 test upon arriving on campus, two weeks afterward, and then as required. No outside guests are allowed on campus, and students are not allowed to visit those who live in other residence halls.
“I had said that I thought they were tracking us when we first arrived on campus, and I was definitely paranoid, but it was weird seeing that delusion of sorts manifest itself in reality,” said E.L. The college has made downloading the PathCheck app optional, and E.L. has opted against it. He says the reaction among students on campus to the app has been mixed. To some extent, students want to be as helpful…