The Technology 202: Tech to contain coronavirus on college campuses sparks fresh privacy concerns

Colleges across the country are scrambling to pandemic-proof their campuses. And everything from contact-tracing apps to facial recognition is on the table. 

The University of Alabama, for instance, is rolling out a suite of apps aimed at monitoring the coronavirus on campus. The school plans to release an app by the end of July that would notify students if they crossed paths with someone who tested positive for coronavirus, using Bluetooth technology. Other schools, such as the University of Arizona, say they are testing similar apps. 

Meanwhile, New York-based Molloy College is planning to place kiosks in the lobbies of buildings on campus, which would use thermal recognition to measure whether students entering a building have a temperature greater than 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit. The kiosks will also use facial recognition, run against the school’s database of student ID cards, to monitor the students’ health. 

The University of California Irvine is using a WiFi-based system its own researchers developed to monitor how many people are congregating in certain buildings on campus. Researchers developing the system tell me data it collects could be used to aid contact tracers seeking to reconstruct any infected person’s moves on campus. The school is taking a gradual approach to rolling out the system, initially beginning with research labs, and taking steps to ensure student privacy, said Pramod Khargonekar, UCI’s vice chancellor for research.

This explosion of coronavirus-monitoring technology on campus is worrying privacy advocates. 

There’s no precedent for a fall semester like this one, and advocates are concerned that colleges are rushing to adopt unproven technologies without knowing whether they’re effective. They warn that the increased adoption could increase data privacy risks for students, and also increase inequality on campus, especially for students who may not be able to buy the latest smartphones. 

“We have no evidence that these invasive technologies will be anything more than a dangerous distraction,” said Albert Fox Cahn, the executive director of the civil rights-focused Surveillance Technology Oversight Project. “Growing numbers of schools are investing in new technologies that will undermine both privacy and public health.” 

He warned in a new report published yesterday that the intense financial pressure on schools to reopen may be pressuring them to adopt technologies without taking enough time to evaluate their privacy risks. 

Universities across the country this week are informing students of their opening plans, and there’s been no one-size-fits-all approach. Princeton is cutting tuition by 10 percent, Harvard is bringing back less than half its undergraduates. Georgetown is bringing back freshmen, but it will bar most others from living there to protect public health. 

Schools are also fighting against against new federal guidance that would require international students to take classes in-person to stay in the country legally this fall. 

There’s been a rush for governments and industry to adopt similar technologies. 

And so far, digital contact-tracing apps particularly are off to a rocky start. For these apps to be effective, researchers estimate that at least 60 percent of a population would need to be using them. But so far, adoption has been limited, especially in the United States where there’s been widespread coverage of the potential privacy flaws and data security risks of this technology. 

Many countries in Europe moved quickly to adopt such apps, but they’ve run into early snags and data privacy issues. For instance, Norway’s data privacy regulator imposed an interim ban on its app this week due to concerns of surveillance. 

The United States has not had a concerted federal push for digital contact tracing, but a handful of states have been developing their own systems. These, too, are not without problems: Utah yesterday announced it would disable the key location tracking feature on its app after state health officials said the feature was unpopular. My colleague Geoffrey Fowler previously reported that an app both North and South Dakota were using was violating its own privacy policy by sharing personal data with an outside company. 

Fox Cahn tells me he’s concerned that schools are still pushing forward with similar apps following these problems. 

“To me it really is incredibly alarming from a public health perspective, but also a privacy perspective,” he said. 

Schools are confronting an overwhelming number of tech solutions in the race to reopen. 

There’s been a flood of new technologies available on the market as tech companies begin making products or pivot existing solutions to address the pandemic, ranging from temperature screening devices to cameras that leverage artificial intelligence to detect if areas are getting too crowded.

Industry has also been grappling with how to respond to the explosion of new offerings. But Fox Cahn worries about schools now having to make these decisions because they might not have as deep IT expertise as some businesses in the private sector. 

“There’s definitely an overload of new technologies that are trying to get in on the covid-19 market,” Matt Albanese, Molloy College’s director of compliance, told me. “It is very difficult to go through it and really have to look at the specifications of each product to see what it can actually do instead of what the marketing people are telling you.” 

The temperature screening kiosks have not arrived on campus yet at Molloy. But as we’ve previously covered in the Technology 202, there are concerns about the accuracy of thermal imaging systems, as well as false positives because there are many reasons other than covid that a person may have an elevated temperature. Albanese said once a kiosk records a high temperature, campus health officials will take the student or employee’s temperature to confirm they have a fever and then determine next steps. 

The facial recognition aspect of the kiosks could also stir debate, especially after researchers have found such systems are less accurate in identifying people of color than white people. 

“I think we’d have to wait until we got it installed to see how accurate it is,” he told me. 

Many other schools are holding off amid the privacy debate. 

Some professors and school administrators pushed back on the expansion of contact tracing technologies to campus during a recent interview about the future of college in the New York Times. 

David Wall Rice, a psychology professor and associate provost at Morehouse College, said such technology “could backfire.” 

“It can certainly be problematic in thinking about the surveillance and policing of black bodies, black men in particular,” he told the Times. 

Note to readers: The Technology 202 will not publish on Monday, July 13. We’ll be back in your inbox on Tuesday. 

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TikTok is considering changes to its corporate structure as it tries to distance itself from China. 

Top executives are considering options such as creating a new management board for TikTok or establishing a headquarters for the app outside China to distance the app’s operations from the country, according to the Wall Street Journal’s Liza Lin and Shan Li. The company is mulling this as its meteoric surge in popularity is met with intensifying regulatory scrutiny. 

Most recently, President Trump said he was considering a ban of the app in response to China’s handling of the coronavirus. Countries around the world have raised concerns about the broad data the app collects, warning that it could be shared with the company’s Chinese owner ByteDance. TikTok has said that it has never received Chinese government requests for data, and it has said it wouldn’t respond to such requests. 

“ByteDance is the first of China’s tech giants to make it big outside China, but the company that is the envy of China’s tech world is finding that success has a higher price perhaps than failure,” Peter Fuhrman, the chairman of investment advisory firm China First Capital, told the Journal. 

The app was recently banned in India, but it took the surprising step of pulling out of Hong Kong earlier this week, as the government adopts a new law that experts warn could open the door to the Chinese government obtaining data about citizens there from tech companies. 

Google campus security singled out black and Latinx workers, prompting complaints to management. 

The tech giant encouraged employees to check their colleagues’ badges on campus, and they called on security staff to do the same, Bloomberg News’s Nico Grant reports. But employees said that black and Latinx employees’ badges were checked more often than their white co-workers. 

The policy, designed to prevent unauthorized visitors, went far beyond the system that’s typical at many companies. 

“As a result, these employees felt policed on campus in a similar way that they are under suspicion elsewhere in life, said the people, who weren’t authorized to speak publicly about the issue,” Nico wrote. “It’s an example of the unconscious, or overlooked, biases that make working in Silicon Valley harder for minorities, the people added.”

The change might seem small but it highlights how employees of color struggle to fit in throughout the tech industry. 

“We’re working to create a stronger sense of inclusion and belonging for Googlers in general and our Black community in particular,” Alphabet chief executive Sundar Pichai wrote in a recent blog post, which was also sent as a memo to staff. “We have realized this process is susceptible to bias.”

WhatsApp has more than 50 million users of its business app world-wide each month. 

The milestone underscores major growth since the app’s 2018 launch and progress in Facebook efforts to make revenue from the encrypted messaging service, the Wall Street Journal’s Dave Sebastian reports. The service has grown 10-fold growth from early 2019, the last time similar data was released.

The company also said it will now allow users to scan a QR code and chat directly with a business, and businesses are now able share product catalogs on WhatsApp as links. Users previously had to add a business’s phone number to message them.

The features underscore a shift in strategy after Facebook backed away from attempts to sell ads on the service, a controversial plan that contributed to the WhatsApp creators’ resignation.

Facebook has also been making a greater e-commerce push amid the coronavirus pandemic, Dave writes. 

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