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Ten Questions College Students Should Ask About Their Schools’ COVID-19 Apps

A girl sits in a college lecture hall, wearing a mask and scrolling through phone in hand.
Some COVID apps may be harmless or even helpful. But many others will create bad precedents while at best doing little to stem the spread of COVID-19.
A girl sits in a college lecture hall, wearing a mask and scrolling through phone in hand.
Jay Stanley,
Senior Policy Analyst,
ACLU Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project
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September 30, 2020

As colleges and universities around the country attempt to resume some semblance of in-person education this fall, many schools are requiring their students to download COVID-19 apps as a condition of returning to campus. These apps vary in what they do, but we are highly skeptical of, or outright opposed, to many of them. It is unlikely that any of these apps will make a significant difference in stemming the spread of the coronavirus on campuses, and it appears that many such apps invade students’ privacy. Many of them, as professor of sociology and technology Zeynep Tufekci argues, are merely “performative” on the part of college administrators — an effort to make a show that they are doing something — and will likely prove to be actively counterproductive.

In public institutions, these app installation requirements represent a government demand that citizens install a particular piece of software on their personal phones. It is true that the current outbreak constitutes an extraordinary situation, but we don’t want this to open the door to a future where people become prisoners of their phones, as various government agencies use compulsory app installation rules to turn them into enforcement devices for all kinds of legal and administrative rules.

It is difficult for us at the ACLU to track what is happening at thousands of schools across the United States, but we encourage returning students and staff being asked to download apps onto their personal devices to ask some sharp questions of school administrators.

1. What does it try to do? Does it administer daily health surveys, remind you to get tested, or provide daily exposure notifications? Does it connect to testing or treatment regimes? Will it help you get in touch with campus health services, or inform you where you can get tested? Does it record your movements or the people that you are near? (We are skeptical and have raised many questions about both location tracking and proximity tracking as anti-coronavirus measures and oppose the former in all circumstances.)

2. Is it used as an enforcement device? Any apps that are used to try to ensure compliance with quarantines or social-distancing rules dramatically raise the stakes around their accuracy and dependability.

3. What data does it collect? Does it require students to identify themselves, or can it be run anonymously? Does it collect health information? If so, does that data align with current public health advice? Does it collect location data or associational data (who you spend time with)? How frequently does it collect any such information — i.e., how fine-grained is it?

4. Is that data stored centrally, or only on your device? Data that is stored on someone else’s computers raises many more privacy issues than data stored locally on your phone.

5. Who has access to the data collected by the app? A company? School administrators? Campus or town police? Others? If it is used as an enforcement measure, who is notified of suspected social-distancing violations — administrators, academic deans, campus police, others?

6. Is it voluntary? Are you given a choice about whether to use it? Are there places on campus you can’t go without the app?

7. What other policies govern its use? Have administrators communicated with you about its security or privacy protections? Are those protections strong?

8. How much control do you have over it? If it’s not voluntary, can you turn location tracking off, pause it, etc., or is it the functional equivalent of an ankle bracelet?

9. What servers does it talk to? Some apps are built with third-party software development kits (SDKs) that are unnecessarily intrusive, show advertisements, or consume your battery or data plan.

10. Is the source code for the app available? Have students or faculty at your university had the opportunity to review that code to verify that the app operates as advertised? If not, why not?

Some COVID-19 apps — for example, symptom checklists for student that properly protect privacy — may be harmless or even helpful. But many others will create bad precedents while doing little to stem the spread of COVID. Asking detailed questions of school administrators can help ensure that the current pandemic doesn’t lead to a long-term erosion in the rights of students, and of us all.

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