How Covid-19 Turned College Campuses Into Surveillance Machines

From simple location-tracking apps to buttons that measure biometrics, college campuses have amped up surveillance in response to Covid-19

Illustration: AJ Dungo

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 as possible, and even expect to give up some element of privacy in order to return to campus. But there’s still no getting around the feeling of constantly being watched.

Before college students returned to campuses during a pandemic this fall, privacy advocates warned that a new wave of school surveillance tech could be installed in the name of keeping them safe. To a degree that varies greatly from campus to campus, schools are experimenting with technology to control crowds, contact-trace, and otherwise monitor the presence of the virus on campus.

Some schools like the University of California, Irvine are using campus Wi-Fi networks to monitor crowd density. In addition to Vassar, a number of schools including the University of Arizona and Southern Methodist University have deployed optional location-tracking apps for contact tracing. Vanderbilt University Medical Center has installed 20 thermal cameras that can detect temperatures from as far as 130 feet away. A few schools are taking the middle road: A number of schools, including the University of Alabama and the University of California, San Diego, are using more privacy-minded Bluetooth-based apps for contact tracing, which don’t require access to location data. The University of Maryland tossed aside plans to deploy a temperature-monitoring app due to concerns that the company could sell student data to third parties, according to the school’s student newspaper The Diamondback. And the vast majority of schools are asking students to self-report their symptoms daily on a university-sanctioned app or website before coming to campus, from small private colleges like Fort Lewis College in Colorado to large public universities like Penn State.

“I was definitely paranoid, but it was weird seeing that delusion of sorts manifest itself in reality.”

In one case, Oakland University in Michigan asked students, faculty, and staff to wear a BioButton, a quarter-sized wearable that continuously monitors the wearer’s heart rate, temperature, and respiratory rate. Users receive a “cleared” or “not cleared” status from the device at the beginning of every day. The device also uses Bluetooth to facilitate contact tracing, allowing the university’s health center to identify any users who were within 15 feet of someone who tested positive. After a student petition flagged privacy concerns, the university made wearing of the BioButton optional, though the university still recommends that all students, faculty, and staff wear the device.

“I’m horrified… this is like a bad parody of a Black Mirror episode,” said Albert Fox Cahn, executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, when asked by OneZero about the BioButton, adding that he isn’t consoled by the university’s assurance that the device encrypts the Bluetooth data it collects and stores in the cloud. “As a privacy expert, I have no idea what that sentence means. It tells us almost nothing about the type of cloud storage used, relevant security practices, and the strength of their encryption,” said Cahn.

Not all of the surveillance tech being used in an attempt to slow Covid-19 on college campuses is new or particularly out of the ordinary. The rise of mass shootings and increasingly larger student bodies over the past decade have turned school security into a multibillion-dollar industry, and many American colleges are already well-acquainted with A.I. cameras, attendance apps that track location, and facial recognition. As the Washington Post reported in 2019, some already use their Wi-Fi networks to track student movements. Back in January, digital rights group Fight for the Future published a facial recognition scorecard of college campuses. While some schools like Harvard University and the University of Virginia swore not to use facial recognition, a number of large public and private universities like the University of Southern California and the University of Wisconsin are already using the technology. Many others said they may consider it in the future.

All of this means universities don’t necessarily need pandemic-specific technology to keep tabs on students. Instead, many of these technologies are being remarketed and repurposed for the Covid-19 era.

One security vendor called Avigilon, owned by Motorola Solutions, already sells a product called Appearance Search to colleges that can scan hours of security footage to find students by name, and track their movements through campus. In a white paper, Avigilon detailed how its existing security platform could work in a pandemic setting. If a professor is found to be infected, the company can generate a report of all the doors they touched using data from their access cards.

In response to questions from OneZero, Motorola Solutions said it would not disclose the names or numbers of schools that were planning on using its Covid-19 product.

“In particular, our education customers have expressed interest in the technologies that provide them with a better understanding of the dynamics around their traffic flow throughout their facilities so that they can make better informed decisions regarding how they organize the flow of people throughout the school,” wrote Elyssa Macfarlane of Motorola Solutions in an email to OneZero.

You don’t necessarily need such high-grade surveillance tools to simply monitor foot traffic. Bars, stores, and other businesses have been using occupancy sensors for years that don’t use facial recognition. Density, another company, sells an occupancy tracking system that uses sensors to monitor the number of people in a room. It says it saw increased demand for its Safe product from colleges and universities due to the pandemic. Schools have been using the tool to monitor dining halls, fitness centers, libraries, and other large gathering places on campus. “We closed more business in the first few months after Covid than we did the entire year prior,” said chief marketing officer Aleks Strub, adding that the tool does not collect personally identifiable information.

The increasing surveillance on school grounds have long concerned privacy activists, who argue that temporary surveillance measures can quickly become permanent and be used by schools to address behavioral issues.

Amelia Vance, the director of youth and education privacy at the Future of Privacy Forum, says that outside a few exceptions like BioButton, or Albion College’s location-tracking app that can reveal private patient data, she hasn’t seen many colleges rely on invasive tech for the fall semester. But she and other privacy advocates warn that increased surveillance could be on the horizon for the spring semester, when campuses expect to bring back even more students. “There’s a whole lot of vendors out there that are pitching location-tracking and complicated contact-tracing apps.”

There’s no indication that all this surveillance is helpful for the purposes of slowing the spread of Covid-19. Syracuse University is a campus with over 1,100 security cameras. But as the editorial board of the Daily Orange noted, this did nothing to stop a group of over 100 freshmen from holding a party in the middle of campus, only a few hundred feet from the school’s public safety office.

Cahn says that S.T.O.P. is concerned by both the location-tracking and health-tracking technologies, such as contact-tracing apps and thermal imaging cameras, that are being deployed on campus. “First, we have to be clear that these technologies often have no peer-reviewed evidence, let alone FDA approval, to demonstrate that they actually work. Health authorities have, in fact, warned against some emerging surveillance tools, such as reliance on wide-area thermal imaging to detect who has Covid-19 symptoms,” he said.

After airports and train stations began installing fever detection cameras, the World Health Organization noted on its website that “temperature screening alone may not be very effective as it may miss travelers incubating the disease or travelers concealing fever during travel, or it may yield false positive (fever of a different cause).” But other public health authorities are in favor of thermal imaging cameras. The New York State Department of Health mandated daily temperature checks for all hospital employees, and explicitly allows the use of contactless thermal cameras for this purpose. The German data protection authorities even issued guidance in September that permitted thermal cameras during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“I’m horrified… this is like a bad parody of a ‘Black Mirror’ episode.”

Bluetooth-based contact-tracing apps, which score high on privacy, can be ineffective without a sufficient testing program and if not enough people decide to participate. Given that many schools are making their contact-tracing apps optional, this will likely decrease their effectiveness. “In fact,” Cahn says, “the only evidence-based contact-tracing methods are decidedly low-tech, relying on community trust, cultural competence, and language access.”

“School officials should be listening to public health and civil rights experts, not spending our tax dollars on surveillance tech because some vendor showed them a fancy slide deck,” wrote Fight for the Future’s deputy director Evan Greer in a message to OneZero.

But how do you ensure the safety of college students during a pandemic without infringing on their privacy?

The most low-grade technology being used to help schools manage Covid-19 are daily symptom checks, where students perform a self-assessment of their symptoms on an app or a website. Given the high rate of asymptomatic and presymptomatic spread of the virus, it’s also unclear how effective such a tool will be.

The University of Missouri asks students to track any symptoms on an app called CampusClear before coming to class.

Yet Emily Williams, a sophomore at the University of Missouri, says that the policy is not enforced. “I personally think students should have to do [the CampusClear app’s check-in] before they begin classes each day, just to keep themselves and their peers safe.”

The school has also opted not to use a contact-tracing app, instead asking students who test positive to manually write down a list of their contacts over the last 48 hours. Such a light approach to monitoring Covid-19 at the university is notable, given that Mizzou students have raised concern over campus surveillance in the past. As a freshman, Williams conducted a survey of 82 Mizzou students on an attendance-tracking app called SpotterEDU that found only 2% of students preferred the location-tracking app over other methods of taking attendance.

“I think Mizzou is doing a decent job handling Covid, but I think there are more steps they could take to help,” wrote Williams.

While technically students are supposed to log their symptoms into CampusClear before coming to class, Williams says this policy is not enforced.

Laura Kellman, a fourth-year PhD student at Stanford University, noted that the university has a daily health check survey where students are asked to log symptoms, record which buildings they’ve traveled to, and any recent testing. But enforcement has been inconsistent.

“I’ve definitely forgotten to fill out the survey some days, and never been contacted,” said Kellman.

Still, such optional measures may be better for compliance in the long run. Draconian surveillance measures in schools can often backfire. Even before the pandemic, there were reports of students finding ways to thwart attendance-tracking technology. Students can easily share QR codes, or ask another student to take their smartphone to class.

Professor Andrew Hope of Federation University Australia, who has researched the selling of surveillance devices in schools, says encouraging students to police themselves is the most effective way that surveillance can have a positive impact on the largest number of students. Asking students to model good behavior in order to hasten a return to normalcy will likely work better than creating an environment where students feel like they’re always being watched.

“Thus, proactively socializing students into particular ways of behaving with the help of observational technologies is likely to be more effective than just surveillance, as students will often either ignore or resist surveillance through avoidance strategies,” said Hope to OneZero.

Freelance technology journalist based in Los Angeles. Previously at Quartz, Engadget, The Daily Dot, and some others. @universityleeds and @AmericanU alum

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