Tech-based contact tracing could put schools in murky privacy territory

Dive Brief:

  • A white paper from the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project (STOP) suggests the use of contact tracing technology by schools could erode student privacy and may not be effective in preventing the spread of coronavirus. 
  • As an alternative, the whitepaper suggests manual contact tracing methods that allow school officials to talk to students and staff to learn more about possible points of exposure, noting these approaches have been successfully used in outbreak control for decades. 
  • Most K-12 school officials using technological contact tracing are doing it through wearable tracking devices that use GPS, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi triangulation to track students, but GPS location data can be off by 22 to 42 feet, exceeding the margin of error needed to identify those within the six-foot range. Wearable tech can also be cost-prohibitive: In 2019, Hillsborough County, Florida, paid CENTEGIX $7.6 million, or $30,400 per school, for a non-COVID related tracking system.

Dive Insight:

Tracking students for contact tracing purposes may lead to questionable privacy territory for schools, especially when tracking minors. Despite the pandemic, schools still must conform to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) and other laws governing student privacy. Districts can disclose information to public health officials, for example, but information can’t be released to the general public without written consent from parents.

The STOP paper also suggests ongoing location tracking could lead to the appropriation and misuse of data by law enforcement and immigration. The potential for use to exacerbate the school-to-prison pipeline with students of color or for data to be used to deport people close to students could disincentivize the use of tech-based contact tracing by families. STOP argues more data safeguards are needed, including bans on the use of contact tracing data for educational purposes like monitoring truancy, and that data should be promptly deleted once a student recovers.

That’s not stopping some schools from using technology to track the spread of COVID-19. The Safely Reopen Schools mobile app is one tool available for automating contact tracing. The idea is that if two mobile phones are close enough to connect via Bluetooth, the phone owners are close enough to transmit the virus. The app includes daily health check-ins and educational notifications, but no personal information is exchanged between the phones, and the app won’t disclose who tested positive.

Colleges are also using apps to help trace and track students’ exposure to coronavirus. In August, 20,000 participants from the University of Alabama at Birmingham were asked to test the GuideSafe mobile app, which will alert them if they’ve been in contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19. The app determines the proximity of two people through cell phone signal strength. If someone reports they contracted the virus, an alert will be sent to anyone who has been within six feet of them for at least 15 minutes over the previous two weeks.

Critics of the technology claim these apps aren’t actually capable of contract tracing and could undermine manual efforts to do so.

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