The Pandemic Is No Excuse to Surveil Students

Trying to do so is all but useless.

In Michigan, a small liberal-arts college is requiring students to install an app called Aura, which tracks their location in real time, before they come to campus. Oakland University, also in Michigan, announced a mandatory wearable that would track symptoms, but, facing a student-led petition, then said it would be optional. The University of Missouri, too, has an app that tracks when students enter and exit classrooms. This practice is spreading: In an attempt to open during the pandemic, many universities and colleges around the country are forcing students to download location-tracking apps, sometimes as a condition of enrollment. Many of these apps function via Bluetooth sensors or Wi-Fi networks. When students enter a classroom, their phone informs a sensor that’s been installed in the room, or the app checks the Wi-Fi networks nearby to determine the phone’s location.

As a university professor, I’ve seen surveillance like this before. Many of these apps replicate the tracking system sometimes installed on the phones of student athletes, for whom it is often mandatory. That system tells us a lot about what we can expect with these apps.

There is a widespread charade in the United States that university athletes, especially those who play high-profile sports such as football and basketball, are just students who happen to be playing sports as amateurs “in their free time.” The reality is that these college athletes in high-level sports, who are aggressively recruited by schools, bring prestige and financial resources to universities, under a regime that requires them to train like professional athletes despite their lack of salary. However, making the most of one’s college education and training at that level are virtually incompatible, simply because the day is 24 hours long and the body, even that of a young, healthy athlete, can only take so much when training so hard. Worse, many of these athletes are minority students, specifically Black men, who were underserved during their whole K–12 education and faced the same challenge then as they do now: Train hard in hopes of a scholarship and try to study with what little time is left, often despite being enrolled in schools with mediocre resources. Many of them arrive at college with an athletic scholarship but not enough academic preparation compared with their peers who went to better schools and could also concentrate on schooling.

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It’s no secret that many universities go to great lengths to let these “amateurs” in demanding athletic fields do as little as possible academically so that they can keep training hard. But it’s supposed to be a wink-wink-nudge-nudge process, not outright fraud. A few years ago, my own university, the University of North Carolina, breached this unspoken rule. The school became embroiled in a high-profile scandal after a professor provided fake classes aimed at athletes that gave them the grades required to keep their eligibility in return for little to no attendance or work. That, of course, made the charade uncomfortably explicit, and UNC faced national attention and some minor sanctions.

As an immediate countermeasure, the university dispatched minders to classrooms. In classes where I had student athletes, especially those in high-profile sports, a man started to appear after each class to ask me if so-and-so athlete had shown up. (This has apparently become a practice at other universities too). It was a no-win situation, because if I refused to cooperate, the students would face sanctions, and maybe even lose their scholarship. And my students were showing up, but many times they were dozing off in class, exhausted from their punishing training regime. Surveillance had brought surface-level compliance, but it had not solved the underlying crisis.

Instead of snitching on them, I took these students aside and did my best to warn them that their interests were not aligned with those of the university and the athletic department. I gave the football players pamphlets and information about concussions. I talked about the low odds that they would actually become professionals after college, and offered to help guide them in any way I could toward the healthiest, most viable future path.

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This wasn’t the first time I encountered extensive surveillance of athletes, only to watch it backfire. In the previous decade, just as Facebook was taking off as a college social network, my student athletes told me that they were forced to “friend” their coaches on Facebook, so the coaches could keep tabs on them. Their solution? Parties that were explicitly no Facebook, no phones. Later, when athletes at many universities were forced to download tracking apps, I have little doubt that some of them did the equivalent of “no Facebook, no phone” parties with these apps: sent their phone along to class with a friend, or left it in their dorm, “sleeping,” while they socialized elsewhere. Why would we expect any other kind of response to a draconian surveillance regime under an unfair system?

Mandatory COVID-19 apps could result in an even worse outcome than that of tracking athletes—whom universities may be able to coerce more effectively because many athletes need their scholarships—because public health rests on trust and cooperation. Knowing that they are being tracked, some students will no doubt let their phone “sleep” peacefully in their bed while they party elsewhere. If a few get sick, they may hide it, for fear of having their tech trickery found out. This is an extra challenge with the college-student cohort because many of them either experience COVID-19 as a mild illness or are completely asymptomatic, but still seem to transmit the virus efficiently, unlike young children. Universities will likely be hindered in their crucial contact-tracing efforts as students will be inclined to lie. The end result will be more surface-level surveillance, but less useful information—and worse public-health outcomes.

Excessive surveillance often backfires in this way. We saw it happen after the surveillance surge in many countries following 9/11. As terrible as it is, Islamic terrorism is, thankfully, a rare event in Western societies. It is perpetrated by small numbers of extremists, who often know one another from their families or neighborhoods. That makes them hard to identify through Big Data methods, which are good for identifying sweeping, structural patterns, not for accurately finding needles in haystacks—especially when those needles live near one another, can easily avoid digital tools, or merely speak a language that’s not commonly understood by law enforcement. And broad surveillance can engender a chilling effect among the whole populace, making people less willing to express their political views online.

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Worse, using Big Data for rare events leads to the problem of false positives. When no clear identifying and strong signal is exclusive to the real but anomalous terrorists, the system will pick up lots of non-terrorists as suspicious, wasting the time of law enforcement in the process. You can imagine that the FBI must have had better things to do than visit random people who had purchased pressure cookers and backpacks at the same time, but that’s what happened after two brothers used those items—putting homemade pressure-cooker bombs in backpacks—to attack the Boston Marathon in 2013. Just as contact tracing requires people to cooperate with the authorities, the best way to identify budding extremists within a community is to work with other people from that community. But covert targeting and surveillance of Muslims in the United States by the FBI doesn’t help the agency gain the trust needed to make cooperation work.

Draconian surveillance is not only counterproductive. It is antithetical to higher education. Our job as educators is not to create a surveillance environment that teaches students how to better lie, but to foster critical thinking and civic responsibility. Hiding from authorities because they have come up with an unworkable plan during a pandemic—opening university dorms but expecting students not to socialize—will foster cynicism, not education. For example, after a Northeastern University student posted a survey on Instagram asking incoming students if they would party, the school responded by sending letters to the parents of the 115 students who were honest enough to answer yes, threatening to rescind their admission offer. That’s a way to ensure students will lie, not to actually stop partying and indoor socializing (especially because many students live in dorms, since that’s what the university provides).

Instead of asking which measures might stop socializing among students, it’s better to understand why such gestures are, at best, futile but also fundamentally performative. In sociology, we talk about “manifest” and “latent” functions of institutions. Manifest functions are what everyone knows and thinks the institutions are about, and how those institutions describe themselves. For K–12 education, for example, the manifest function is to teach young people basic skills: reading, writing, math, social sciences. But as the pandemic has shown, K–12 education has a strong and crucial latent function in society: child care, which is especially important as our economy increasingly demands two-parent employment. Latent functions aren’t less important; they are just spoken about less explicitly. And when we kneecap them, their importance becomes clearer.

One of the most important latent functions of higher education in the United States is to provide a place for socialization where young adults can meet their potential lifelong friends, spouses, and business partners, and where they can create their durable social networks. Another is to provide a quasi-supervised transition from parental control to responsible, fully independent adulthood. That comes with the basic understanding that students will socialize and, yes, party, and that’s why colleges trying to recruit students emphasize the quality of life and extracurriculars they provide: the meal plans, the climbing gyms, the social clubs. Plus, many colleges are home to fraternities and sororities, which supercharge some of higher education’s latent functions, providing members with more exclusivity and less supervision, but still under the umbrella of the university. To deny these latent functions is to deny why residential higher education exists. Certainly, it’s for the learning and the experience in the classrooms and labs, but it’s not just for that.

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Making the latent functions explicit is important because we have to account for them in how we manage and change these institutions—during regular times and during a crisis. For example, for K–12 education, “summer learning loss” is a well-documented consequence of ignoring its latent function of child care. During the summer, when families lose the child care that school provides, those with resources can make up for the loss in ways that not only keep their children occupied, but also continue their education. Many times, kids from better-off families return to school in the fall after having attended enriching summer camps, whereas poorer families have to make do with haphazard child care—often the TV, and these days probably a lot of YouTube. This has implications during the pandemic as well, because wealthier families can respond to K–12 school closures by hiring tutors and forming pods, while poorer kids struggle even to access Wi-Fi. In the case of higher education, pretending that the latent function of socializing doesn’t exist makes controlling the pandemic harder.

The kind of mandatory surveillance that some universities are envisioning is also unethical, as it lacks sufficient justification. Certain ethical boundaries can justifiably be crossed during emergencies. Once, during a post-earthquake rescue mission (I was in a nearby city and joined a rescue team because help was needed), I walked into a house and swiped a floor lamp because I needed light to continue a nighttime rescue effort. I had no qualms, and a local police officer actually helped me “break in” to the house. Public health also often requires considerations that go beyond individual choice—such as mandating masks indoors—since individual actions can threaten the health of others.

But in this particular case, the authorities are going out of their way to create a situation where the congregate living (dorms and shared housing) alone makes outbreaks inevitable and threatens people who work at universities—the custodial and food-services staff, many of whom are older and from minority communities—who cannot avoid young people by teaching online (as I was allowed to and have chosen to do). Further, they are creating an extra privacy threat, because if we know anything about what happens to databases, it’s that they are often leaked, hacked, or misused. To add to these cascading failures, many universities are responding to the inevitable outbreaks by trying to move students out of dorms, or to send them home—ensuring that some of the infected young adults will then seed more outbreaks, or infect their more vulnerable parents or grandparents. No financial constraint justifies this combination of unethical actions and counterproductive surveillance.

At a minimum, universities should concede that if they open dorms and bring students on campus, there will be transmission. They should engage in frequent testing to try to locate, trace, and isolate outbreaks before they spread more. Contact tracing requires trust, and if digital contact tracing is to be invoked, it has to be through voluntary apps with strong guarantees of privacy and a lack of punitive consequences—ideally without any data collected in a central database or accessible to university administrators.

Instead of extensive but ineffective surveillance of the inevitable gatherings, universities should offer safer options for socializing (outdoors, distanced) throughout the semester while minimizing contact between students and staff and ensuring that adequate safety measures in regards to masks and ventilation are practiced. But that’s only if universities open in person. Instead of a haphazard opening followed by rapid backtracking that scatters students to seed more outbreaks, universities should stay closed to in-person, residential experience until the adults get their act together and get the virus under control. The rest is surveillance theater, ineffective against the pandemic and corrosive to what higher education should be about.

All Rights Reserved for Zeynep Tufekci

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