Reopening Schools Issue Brief: Wearable Technologies & COVID-19

Reopening Schools Issue Brief: Wearable Technologies & COVID-19

Schools and higher education institutions nationwide are still considering whether to return to in-person classrooms, continue remote learning, or offer a mix of options this fall as the COVID-19 pandemic continues. Any of these options raise significant implications for student privacy and equity, but most reopening plans do not examine these concerns. The Future of Privacy Forum has developed a new issue brief series to raise awareness of the reopening issues that are keeping us up at night. Don’t miss our previous issues on increased data collection and storage and thermal scans and temperature checks.

Issue Brief: Wearable Technologies & COVID-19

1 in 5 Americans use an activity or health-monitoring device such as an Apple Watch or Fitbit. Could these types of devices be repurposed to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19? If so, what are the implications for privacy, equity, and data use? Schools, sports leagues, large employers, and others are racing to find out. While several major studies are underway, early reviews on the potential of wearable technologies to fight COVID-19 range from “a huge amount of promise” and “digital PPE” to “unlikely to work for a variety of reasons, and usually amount to an excuse to subject people to risk for economic gain.”

Wearables are being used in a variety of settings and ways to assist with COVID-19 tracking and tracing. One of the more high-profile examples of using wearables to identify early-stage COVID-19 cases is the Oura ring, a device originally designed as a sleep and activity tracker that is now one of several high-tech tools being used by the NBA to monitor player health. Despite “no substantial proof that wearables like the Oura ring are useful for early detection,”because of their potential, wearables have become a key component of the NBA’s restart.

Wearables can also be used to encourage physical distancing or to nudge wearers to alter their physical distancing behavior. Examples of wearables for social distancing use are currently being tested in a variety of settings including an Amazon warehouse, a Ford factory in Michigan, and by dockworkers in Belgium. Amazon is testing a wearable device described as a “clear plastic sleeve with a clip that features an LED light and audio system” that will alert workers when they are in violation of physical distancing guidelines. NBA teams and staff are being asked to wear a social distancing alarm. Unlike the Oura ring, use of the alarm is not optional. League representatives have said that use of the alarm system will be required by its members to “help promote adherence to physical distancing rules.” Similarly, Belgian dockworkers are wearing Bluetooth-enabled bracelets, originally envisioned as a safety measure to alert someone in the event of an accident, both to enforce social distancing and for contact tracing.

Another potential use of wearable devices to control the spread of COVID-19 is digital contact tracing. Apple and Google have collaborated to create an opt-in, Bluetooth-based contact tracing platform that stores a user’s interaction data on individual phones instead of in one central database, an important privacy feature. But, questions about the platform’s effectiveness remain as significant portions of the population would need to download and opt-in to certain app features for it to be effective.

How might these types of wearable technology be applied in schools?  K-12 schools with previous experience using wearable technology in PE classes may try to find new purposes for that tech in the COVID era. While concrete examples in the U.S. are limited since most schools are still closed for the summer, we can look to examples from Beijing, who had students wear smart bracelets that took their temperature when they returned to classes in May. After a Wired story detailed the plans of one Ohio school district to test the use of wearable electronic beacons to enforce social distancing and conduct contact tracing among students in the fall, parents immediately responded with “concern and outrage.” The district quickly apologized for what it called a “misleading” story and clarified that it had not committed to using the tracking technology widely in the fall, but rather only to a small pilot program that would deploy the software in two hallways in order to test its use in a school setting.

The decision to implement wearables in K-12 schools and higher education requires confronting the  major implications they will have on student privacy. What privacy protections will associated institutions and corporations put in place to ensure student privacy? How do those protections differ between K-12 and higher education?  Will these wearables be docked at home or at school? Who will have access to the information collected through these wearables? What will be the scope and use of the data collected through these devices? What options will students and families have to opt-out of  these devices? What avenues for redress will students and families have to correct or remove data collected through these devices from their academic records? Will incentives or requirements to use or adopt these wearable seem coercive if they are accompanied by unaddressed privacy concerns?

Ultimately, the required use of wearable technology in a school setting raises questions about privacy and the data collection, retention, and usage policies of the school and technology vendor. With potential public health benefits of wearables still unclear, schools should proceed with caution in order to protect both student health and student privacy. As always, we welcome the opportunity to discuss these issues with you further. Please feel free to contact us here at any time.

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