Tracking COVID-19 at the Expense of Personal Privacy

Tracking COVID-19 at the Expense of Personal Privacy
The coronavirus disease (COVID-19) contact tracing smartphone app of Britain's National Health Service (NHS) is displayed on an iPhone in this illustration photograph taken in Keele, Britain, on Sept. 24, 2020. (Carl Recine/Illustration/Reuters)
Diane Dimond

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 freedom 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-19.

Real Clear Investigations reports that after complaints of forced surveillance from students at dozens of U.S. universities, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, or EFF, 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 an 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, nearly 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 that students are required to download to their cellphones. 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 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 s/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 isn’t mandatory.

Civil libertarians worry that 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 “solution(s) supporting safe return” to both “work and school.”

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 and wear a device that keeps track of your movements and personal medical information. You cool with that?

Diane Dimond is an author and investigative journalist. Her latest book is “Thinking Outside the Crime and Justice Box.”
Views expressed in this article are opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.