The right to privacy — or lack thereof — has sparked debates around the ever growing data monitorization. In times of safety and security concern, privacy has often been sacrificed, a theme that is becoming ever more apparent in the COVID-19 era.
As the international community continues to grapple with the best way to respond to the pandemic, the world has yet again digitized. Contact tracing apps have trickled into common use, with the adoption of location tracking services as well as the notification of those who may have been exposed to COVID-19. At the surface the concept seems ideal, allowing for rapid COVID-19 identification; yet, like with all new developments, these applications unlock troubling uncertainties.
The United States hosts countless contact tracing apps, but unlike other countries, has refrained from adopting a national surveillance system. This lack of a universal policy has allowed private organizations, namely colleges and universities, to implement their own systems of COVID-19 prevention.
Regardless of the amount of data collected, these applications serve as a latent risk for manipulating privacy infringements and information getting used in ulterior motives outside of the pandemic. As students endure this reality, the hope is that these contact tracing apps will at the very least slow the spread of COVID-19. This is a minuscule accomplishment universities claim is being achieved in the face of massive breaches of privacy. Nonetheless, weakness still persists regarding the accuracy of these applications.
A study conducted by research professionals at the University of Georgia found that location readers utilizing GPS can be affected by building or landscape positioning. One professional, Kelly Merry, found “on average it was seven to thirteen meters off,” an exponential miscalculation when these contact tracing services are supposed to determine COVID-19 exposure.
The same inaccuracies hold true for apps that utilize Bluetooth. Bluetooth signals move through walls and can easily flag neighbors in residence halls or apartment buildings that have never physically seen each other. With students residing in close living quarters across college campuses, this serves as a blatant vulnerability.
More so, a study published in Plos One highlighted Bluetooth imprecisions on public transportation. Faulty distance readers led contact tracing apps to identify multiple false positives and negatives, concluding it was as if the bluetooth reader spit out information at random.
At the extreme, a Michigan liberal arts school, Albion College, has mandatorily instituted its contact tracing app, Aura. Students are virtually prisoners to the app as their GPS location is recorded round the clock with no way to opt out, notifying administration of students who have forbiddingly traveled off campus or dismantled their location. Despite backlash, Albion College President, Mathew Johnson, has clung to claims regarding the app's necessity, saying “right now, we believe this is the best possible path forward.”
The app itself was designed by Nucleus Careers, a recruiting firm with seemingly no experience in healthcare applications. Predictably, multiple security breaches within the Aura app have unfolded. One student was able to easily gain access to the app’s back end servers, while another managed to access the entire database, including student names and medical records. These are glaring, yet, unsurprising flaws that take place as universities turn to unregulated technological outlets. Even so, schools such as Bucknell and Temple University are allegedly beginning to install this same faulty platform on their campus.
UW-Madison has also seen an upgrade in surveillance with the Safer Badgers app for the 2021 Spring semester, but in an email statement Chancellor Rebecca Blank has promised, “the app does not track your current or location history in any way, on or off campus.” Instead, UW-Madison has offered Bluetooth exposure notifications that notify students in extended periods of contact with someone who tests positive for COVID-19. “Participation is optional but strongly encouraged,” said Blank in a Jan. 13 update.
At a mere glance it seems like optional exposure tracking, like that at UW-Madison, is the best solution. This path provides an outlet of extra security to those comfortable giving access to their data.
Be that as it may, any technology use leaves a footprint.
Contact tracing applications “are effectively taking understanding of whether someone may be COVID-19 positive or not, and combining that with location information through their devices,” stated Cillian Kieran, CEO of Ethyca data protection. Kieran further warns that through location tracking, “it’s quite easy to understand who somebody might be.” Especially when too few people opt into optional exposure tracing, it becomes a clear privacy risk, allowing anonymous data to become easily identifiable.
The point is not to slam on contact tracing applications in their entirety, only to bring awareness to the competing and faulty forms that persist throughout college campuses. With a lack of a national policy, there is no regulatory body ensuring universities’ contact tracing apps are accurate, made by experienced companies or mandating that all data is anonymous and secure. Universities love to boast about their efforts to fight COVID-19, yet there remains little to no evidence proving these apps are serving as anything more than a glamorous talking point.
Contact tracing applications stand as a good potential solution to aid in COVID-19 identification, but these apps need to be taken as what they are: Experiments. Privacy infringements run rampant while the bluetooth and location services are likely functioning inaccurately. Until a tested and regulated application is created and adopted on a wide scale, we should continue to focus on social distancing, doubling up on our mask wearing and rapid testing — responses proven to work. Technology can serve as a great resource, but university students should not be the guinea pigs to these unproven methods.
Em-J is a freshman studying Political Science and Journalism. Do you think universities should use contact tracing applications? Is COVID-19 identification worth potential privacy infringements and inaccuracies? Send all comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Em-J is an Opinion Editor for The Daily Cardinal, and is also a member of the Editorial Board.