Will Coronavirus Concerns Turn Schools Into Surveillance States?


As we have reported, many privacy concerns are arising as the push for more widespread “contract tracing” grows stronger.

And measures that one school is taking to trace and control the potential spread of coronavirus among the student body is particularly chilling.

Wired reports that as schools begin for planning to reopen in the fall, an Ohio school is implementing tracking beacons that students would be required to wear to prevent large groups from gathering.

When students return to school in New Albany, Ohio, in August, they’ll be carefully watched as they wander through red-brick buildings and across well-kept lawns—and not only by teachers.

The school district, with five schools and 4,800 students, plans to test a system that would require each student to wear an electronic beacon to track their location to within a few feet. The technology logs which students and teachers are in each classroom throughout the day. The hope is such technology could prevent or minimize an outbreak of Covid-19, the deadly respiratory disease at the center of a global pandemic.

“We are very much interested in the automated tracking of students,” says Michael Sawyers, superintendent for New Albany-Plain Schools. He believes technology can be employed to help track whether social distancing is being adhered to and to identify which students may have been exposed should one of them test positive for the novel virus.

So far, there is no indication that any other schools will be implementing such surveillance measures according to Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, but the organization has issued guidelines on reopening schools and colleges which warns about vendors taking advantage of the pandemic to expand data-mining efforts.

“One of the things that will be a huge profit driver, potentially, is that younger children would need specially designed devices if they don’t have smartphones,” warns Albert Fox Cahn, founder of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project.

Wired explains that there certainly is a lot of demand from schools for high-tech ways to prevent the spread:

Like countless other schools, those in the New Albany-Plain district are considering regular temperature checks as well as strict enforcement of mask wearing and social distancing. The additional tracking technology, to be piloted there in coming weeks through summer school classes, comes from Volan, which sells Bluetooth beacons to some schools as a safety tool. The beacons track where people are and send alerts in emergencies. Volan is one of several companies now hoping to sell its technology as an aid to reopening schools.

Katy Abel, associate commissioner for external affairs and special projects at the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education, says some state universities in Massachusetts are exploring use of beacons.

RightCrowd, which sells smart Bluetooth badges to companies including Honeywell and Genentech, has developed one system that issues a warning if people get too close and another that can be used for contact tracing. “We have inquiries coming from many industries including higher education and boarding schools,” says the company’s CEO, Peter Hill.

The longer measures meant to control the spread of the virus get embedded into our daily life, the more opportunities open up to violate our civil liberties.

Where does it end?

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