Reopening Schools Issue Brief: Location Tracking & COVID-19

Reopening Schools Issue Brief: Location Tracking & 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 installments on the student privacy issues associated with increased health data collection and storage by schools, the use of temperature checks and thermal scans, and wearable technologies.

Issue Brief: Location Tracking & COVID-19

If you have a smartphone, you’re probably contributing to a massive coronavirus surveillance system,” the Washington Post warned in March. The use of location data to fight the pandemic has been touted as both “Orwellian” and a way to “save between thousands and millions of lives.” The truth is far more nuanced, as “privacy versus health is a false trade-off.” As schools prepare to welcome millions of students back this fall, should location tracking technologies–some of which are beginning to be used on college campuses to monitor attendance and engagement–play a part in protecting the health of students, educators, and staff?  And if so, how?

Countries like South Korea and Taiwan had success in containing COVID-19 by using location data to conduct aggressive digital contact tracing and enforce quarantines. Still, this tracking has raised privacy concerns and led to stigmatization. In the United States, even voluntary data-sharing efforts have struggled to take hold, despite a recent study by Johns Hopkins University that found that 60% of people said they would share their positive COVID-19 test results with a contract tracing app. To address privacy concerns, the Utah Department of Health recently disabled the location-tracking feature of its COVID-19 app to encourage more residents to use the app’s educational symptom and testing information features. While New York City is developing plans to enable contract tracing in schools, these privacy and adoption challenges should serve as a cautionary tale for K-12 school districts and colleges—including the University of ArizonaUniversity of AlabamaOklahoma State, and Boston University, which plan to use opt-in apps to facilitate contact tracing on campus this fall.

Another potential use of location information during the pandemic is to measure adherence to social distancing protocols or analyze population-level trends to improve public health resources distribution. Tools such as Google’s “COVID-19 Community Mobility Reports” and Unacast’s “Social Distancing Scorecard” rely on location data to analyze large-scale trends in movement and traffic patterns. But these tools can be imprecise, as most GPS-enabled smartphones are only accurate within a 15-foot radius, and large buildings and trees can further downgrade their efficacy. The Electronic Frontier Foundation has also questioned the value of using location data to fight COVID-19, noting that location tracking falls short of a “scientifically rigorous” standard that must be applied to any emergency public health measure. Ultimately, as this Fast Company piece concludes, “All the conundrums about giving up privacy to save lives are moot if the data is faulty.”

Technical limitations aside, the realities of a student’s day-to-day existence at school also make the effective use of these tools a challenge. At colleges and universities, students learn and live with classmates on campus, making adequate social distancing difficult. Social distancing is similarly tricky in K-12 settings, where students are learning in often overcrowded classrooms and schools. Schools must also consider the equity implications in deciding to use location tracking to monitor social distancing violations, which may mean subsequent punitive action for students. Though not conducted with location tracking, recent law enforcement attempts to monitor violations of social distancing guidelines have resulted in a disproportionate number of issued summonses and citations in communities of color.

It is “nearly impossible” to truly anonymize location data – and that data might have limited public health value in the first place. As we discussed previously, surveillance like contact tracing and location monitoring can result in the overcollection of data, especially from marginalized populations.  In addition to considering these technical recommendations, any school thinking about using location data to support contact tracing or social distancing efforts this fall should consider incorporating privacy best practices: setting clear guidelines for what data will be collected from whom,  who has access to the data, how it will be used and stored both during the pandemic and into the future, how long the data collection will be necessary to protect both health and privacy, and whether adoption can be voluntary.  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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