Facing Backlash, University No Longer Requires Students to Wear Device That Monitors Vital Signs

August 3, 2020 Updated: August 3, 2020

Oakland University in Ohio has withdrawn a controversial policy that requires any student returning to live on campus this fall to wear a device that will monitor their vital signs.

Under Oakland University’s original reopening plan, all students who live in residence halls must wear a “BioButton,” a coin-sized device that would help the university track potential cases of COVID-19. According to BioIntelliSense, the company that develops the technology, BioButton can monitor respiratory rate, heart rate, temperature, body position, sleep, and activity state “with medical-grade accuracy.”

“In order to lower the risk of virus outbreaks on campus a BioButton screening tool is being used,” the university wrote in a now-retracted message on its website. “It provides additional information for health screening. The button will be used in conjunction with the daily health assessment to determine if you are able to participate in campus activities. The individual data will remain private to the wearer and is not shared with others.”

Despite the university’s promise not to share the collected information, the BioButton mandate raised controversy among students who felt uncomfortable being continuously tracked. An online petition, which called on the university administrators to make the BioButton optional, quickly gained over 2,500 supporting signatures from members of the campus community and the general public.

“A large portion of students feel that this in violation of their privacy and some students have stated that their rejections of this idea come from a religious basis,” the petition read. “Moreover, the new idea (evidently a large adjustment) was not mentioned but instead put further into the website for individuals to stumble across.”

“Masks and socially distancing are understandable and per CDC guidelines but this seems like a large overreach in terms of student and staff privacy,” the petition added.

In response, Oakland University backed down on its plan, saying on its official Facebook page that wearing of the tracker is no longer mandatory.

The use of location-tracking smartphone applications and vital sign monitoring devices amid the pandemic remain controversial due to concerns of privacy violation. Tech giants Apple and Google in early April rolled out their Bluetooth-based contact tracing application, saying it would help public health authorities contain the spread of the CCP virus by identifying who might have become infected with the virus early. Civil liberties groups, notably the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), have been pushing back against the application since its release.

“As part of the nearly unprecedented societal response to COVID-19, such apps raise difficult questions about privacy, efficacy, and responsible engineering of technology to advance public health,” the EFF wrote in a statement. “Above all, we should not trust any application—no matter how well-designed—to solve this crisis or answer all of these questions.”