35 votes

Colleges are turning students’ phones into surveillance machines, tracking the locations of hundreds of thousands

25 comments

  1. [11]
    HanakoIsBestGirl
    (edited )
    Link
    A company that does the tracking, mentioned in the article and their legalese privacy policy, which doesn't seem to be very good What gets me here is that opting out is very hard. Unless a uni...

    A company that does the tracking, mentioned in the article and their legalese privacy policy, which doesn't seem to be very good

    What gets me here is that opting out is very hard. Unless a uni explicitly allows you to, how can you? For most surviellance you can not download a malicious program or do something a different way. You can't not go to university (well you can.... but you get the point).

    And where did this idea that they have the right to essentially force the installation of proprietary malware on students' personal devices even come from?

    I'm not American, but I cannot understand how this can be remotely acceptable or legal as anything other than explicit opt in. Detailed and intimate surveillance should not be a requirement to education.

    If I were a student, I would claim that I did not own a phone. Or that I only had a flip phone.

    E, some more points:

    It mentions the tracking of students with mental health issues and that it aims to help that. Im in this mental health issues demographic, so I have emotional opinions. So let me put myself in this situation for a bit. Im aware that others may think differently here.

    If I were not technically adept and perhaps a bit less privacy conscious, and assumed that the app I was asked to install was just to check if I turned up to class (which seems to be what the students are told?). Only to later find out that this system had flagged me as "at risk" or whatever, with the uni then sending an "advisor" to knock on my door, I would, to say the least, be a bit unhappy.

    Now, im not the most trusting person, I tend not to trust people or things by default. If I found out my university was doing this, it would destroy any and all trust I could possibly have had with them (which is not a great situation to be in). It would probably anger me greatly as well (second edit, this is also not a good situation, especially if you have mental health issues, I see myself acting irrationally in this sort of situation). It explicitly mentions using the software to "assess their mental health" and all I can say to that is that my uni is not my psychologist, and given that people in universities are 18+ im not sure that duty of care applies (perhaps im wrong, but its not an excuse for surviellance like this anyway).

    I feel that others in a similar situation like me may feel that a system like this could help them (but I dont want to speak on their behalf, they should reply with their thoughts!), it could allow intervention before something bad happens. And if you feel that way, great. This system should be an opt in which you can choose to use and I can choose to not touch with a 10m pole and a hazmat suit on. I dont want to be babied and "protected from myself" (not a quote from the article, these are air quotes).

    So thats a bit of an emotionally charged rant.

    Never mind issues about this data being leaked or sold or that its all seemingly proprietary software in use. Normalisation of surveillance too!

    This is my first time actually making a post here (I usually just comment) so hopefully I got it all right!

    24 votes
    1. asoftbird
      Link Parent
      Seems good to me, welcome!

      This is my first time actually making a post here (I usually just comment) so hopefully I got it all right!

      Seems good to me, welcome!

      11 votes
    2. [9]
      NaraVara
      Link Parent
      I think this is actually a great way to teach a lesson in collective action and organization. You really just need to convince students to turn off their phones before leaving home (or not to...

      I were a student, I would claim that I did not own a phone. Or that I only had a flip phone.

      I think this is actually a great way to teach a lesson in collective action and organization. You really just need to convince students to turn off their phones before leaving home (or not to bring them at all). Or to just turn off Bluetooth. They can penalize one or two at a time, but they can’t penalize a whole classroom.

      And even if they do, it’s not like anyone gives a damn about GPA either. The notion that it might impact job prospects is on par with the “permanent record” lie that grade school teachers use.

      7 votes
      1. [8]
        HanakoIsBestGirl
        Link Parent
        I think the issue with that is that you will find that most students will not want to turn off their phones or leave them at home. Most are addicted and I just dont feel that they will....

        I think the issue with that is that you will find that most students will not want to turn off their phones or leave them at home. Most are addicted and I just dont feel that they will. Convenience over privacy.

        A much better way would be to convince them to just all uninstall the app / not install it in the first place.

        As for turning off Bluetooth, this doesn't properly work on Android because.... Google.

        2 votes
        1. [4]
          skybrian
          Link Parent
          Are there problems turning off Bluetooth on Android? I haven't heard and it seems to stay off for me.

          Are there problems turning off Bluetooth on Android? I haven't heard and it seems to stay off for me.

          5 votes
          1. [3]
            HanakoIsBestGirl
            Link Parent
            I believe someone else in this thread has also linked this. Im not entirely sure that they still do it, or if it would allow anyone other than Google to track you though. I imagine that if your...

            I believe someone else in this thread has also linked this. Im not entirely sure that they still do it, or if it would allow anyone other than Google to track you though. I imagine that if your device is scanning for beacons, it can be seen, but I dont know if it will allow the app mentioned in this article to work.

            3 votes
            1. [2]
              skybrian
              Link Parent
              I don't think a passive radio receiver can be seen but it will still help to figure out position. It might be possible to turn off the permission for the app to know its location, though.

              I don't think a passive radio receiver can be seen but it will still help to figure out position.

              It might be possible to turn off the permission for the app to know its location, though.

              2 votes
              1. HanakoIsBestGirl
                Link Parent
                I imagine that if you denied permissions to the app, it would report that to the university. After all, it cant even perform its "most innocent" (but still unjust) feature of checking that you are...

                I imagine that if you denied permissions to the app, it would report that to the university. After all, it cant even perform its "most innocent" (but still unjust) feature of checking that you are in class without the right permissions.

                1 vote
        2. [3]
          NaraVara
          Link Parent
          Depends. If they need the app to actually access buildings or register for classes that may not be possible.

          A much better way would be to convince them to just all uninstall the app / not install it in the first place.

          Depends. If they need the app to actually access buildings or register for classes that may not be possible.

          2 votes
          1. [2]
            HanakoIsBestGirl
            Link Parent
            But the same problem would apply if students left their phones at home or turned them off. And I imagine if you turned off bluetooth and the app could no longer track you, it would refuse to function.

            But the same problem would apply if students left their phones at home or turned them off. And I imagine if you turned off bluetooth and the app could no longer track you, it would refuse to function.

            3 votes
            1. NaraVara
              Link Parent
              For building access yeah, so they'd have to turn it off once they get in. But for class registration that's once per semester/quarter thing.

              For building access yeah, so they'd have to turn it off once they get in. But for class registration that's once per semester/quarter thing.

              2 votes
  2. [7]
    seizethegoddamngap
    Link
    Network Engineer for a large US campus here. I'm not sure if we have this software, and as far as I know we are not actively monitoring students locations. I hate to break it to everyone, but even...

    Network Engineer for a large US campus here. I'm not sure if we have this software, and as far as I know we are not actively monitoring students locations.

    I hate to break it to everyone, but even without this software, I can pretty much track your on-campus movements just by knowing your MAC Address or username. We use MAC authentication, so even if you're using Android 9/10's built-in MAC randomizer, you're still hitting our RADIUS servers with your username and the randomized MAC. Every AP and switch on campus has a hostname that tells us exactly where it is, and I can see what MACs are connected to each and every AP/switch.

    This isn't for any nefarious reason, this is just how networking works. I will say that making this an 'active' level of monitoring crosses an ethical boundary, and the any Uni using this software should be incredibly transparent about it's use.

    16 votes
    1. [3]
      Silbern
      Link Parent
      But that's different, in the sense that A; you're not using it to actively monitor students' locations at all times, unlike this app which exists for no other purpose but to do that; and B,...

      But that's different, in the sense that A; you're not using it to actively monitor students' locations at all times, unlike this app which exists for no other purpose but to do that; and B, students aren't required to use the public WiFi if they want to opt out. They can use their phone's hotspot feature (I do, though more because of spotty coverage on campus than for privacy), they can use the computer labs, etc. But if they're required to install this app to take a class, there isn't really an alternative. Best thing I guess would be one of those isolating metallic bags and only take the phone out for attendance, but then you're literally forcing students to buy a useless throwaway device just for that. Whole situation is highly unethical imo.

      14 votes
      1. jackson
        Link Parent
        Exactly. The fact that students are being tracked constantly for the purpose of being tracked is the issue here. In general, I'm fine with the data collected by networking hardware being kept for...

        Exactly. The fact that students are being tracked constantly for the purpose of being tracked is the issue here. In general, I'm fine with the data collected by networking hardware being kept for whatever reason, since it's entirely opt-in to use the network and that's what I expect by connecting to any public network, and also the fact that it's only really used in a disaster-response or troubleshooting scenario (all strictly networking-related).

        From the way this article is written, it seems like universities are requiring that students install these apps to track attendance, potentially also activity elsewhere (which is a problem in and of itself, since the homepage of SpotterEDU explicitly says "We only care if students are in class during class; no GPS tracking means we can't locate them anywhere else").

        I drop this in the category of automated speeding enforcement: a good idea on paper, but attendance and location awareness needs to be human focused, not data focused, as we are all human.

        6 votes
      2. seizethegoddamngap
        Link Parent
        Yeah I agree, thats some real Big Brother-level stuff.

        Yeah I agree, thats some real Big Brother-level stuff.

        3 votes
    2. HanakoIsBestGirl
      Link Parent
      I agree with Silbern here, this is just a side effect of having a large wireless network. I do know that some shopping centres use their "free WiFi" to track peoples movements throughout the...

      I agree with Silbern here, this is just a side effect of having a large wireless network. I do know that some shopping centres use their "free WiFi" to track peoples movements throughout the stores.

      But as long as you arent actively using this to surveill and dont log peoples movements (like this app does) then it’s fine. It would be nice if networks could be designed so that we could guarantee that this tracking couldn’t happen, but I don’t know enough about networks and I dont think its possible.

      At least you can always opt out if this tracking by going onto airplane mode. Or mac randomisation if you dont authenticate with the network and identify yourself.

      7 votes
    3. [2]
      skybrian
      Link Parent
      Interesting. I'm wondering if your campus also runs public access WiFI, or is all of it for students and staff only? Also, can students access their accounts using their cell phone's data plan?

      Interesting. I'm wondering if your campus also runs public access WiFI, or is all of it for students and staff only? Also, can students access their accounts using their cell phone's data plan?

      5 votes
      1. seizethegoddamngap
        Link Parent
        There's 2 main SSID's, Eduroam (which is actually deployed at campuses across the country but still uses your specific campuses RADIUS servers I believe), and then our <UniName>Net, which is...

        There's 2 main SSID's, Eduroam (which is actually deployed at campuses across the country but still uses your specific campuses RADIUS servers I believe), and then our <UniName>Net, which is "open", but requires you to be a registered user OR sign up as a guest through a splash page. Either one logs your MAC.

        I am personally able to access some/most campus resources resources from outside, and login with my email address. That would definitely eleminate almost all of my visibility.

        7 votes
  3. [6]
    Leonidas
    (edited )
    Link
    This is absolutely ridiculous and shows the degree to which surveillance culture and helicopter parenting have wrested control over our institutions. I have a difficult time believing the people...

    This is absolutely ridiculous and shows the degree to which surveillance culture and helicopter parenting have wrested control over our institutions. I have a difficult time believing the people pushing these tracking systems aren't either cynically focused on profit or intensely delusional. There are plenty of reasons why a student might not choose to leave their dorm much or go to the library, in addition to the other examples of judged activity mentioned in the article, and they don't necessarily reflect mental health issues. I was particularly irked by the parent who felt entitled to know whether their son was attending all his classes; of course, it's fine to be concerned for your child's welfare and want them to succeed in a new environment, but ideally that would be done by directly communicating with them instead of monitoring their every move via an Orwellian tracking system.

    11 votes
    1. [4]
      skybrian
      (edited )
      Link Parent
      It's somewhat unusual for college although I think there are some classes that take attendance? Also if you miss a quiz or a test it will be noticed. But automatic attendance tracking is nothing...

      It's somewhat unusual for college although I think there are some classes that take attendance? Also if you miss a quiz or a test it will be noticed.

      But automatic attendance tracking is nothing new for hourly employees who have to punch a time clock. Similar attempts at cheating might be possible like having someone else do it for you.

      (But I'm not going to defend the practice; just adding context.)

      There is a question of what college attendance really means from a credentialing point of view. Like, if it's about knowledge, why can't you take a test to place out?

      6 votes
      1. [3]
        Leonidas
        Link Parent
        Yes, but it seems like this is about more than just taking attendance, since these systems are also being used to track and analyze students' whereabouts the entire time they're on campus. I don't...

        Yes, but it seems like this is about more than just taking attendance, since these systems are also being used to track and analyze students' whereabouts the entire time they're on campus. I don't see a huge issue with simply taking attendance using this method as long as students are made fully aware of the practice. One can certainly debate whether being in class each day is an important factor in the educational process at the college level, but I think that's a separate concern since instructors don't need to use this technology to do so.

        I do think there are potential good applications for this type of tracking, but it should be completely opt-in and/or restricted to students who have already been identified as at-risk. However, the way the article states it's been rolled out seems overbearingly excessive and puts those universities and companies in a bad light for their lack of transparency.

        4 votes
        1. [2]
          HanakoIsBestGirl
          Link Parent
          Yes, but how can a student verify what tracking is actually taking place, they dont control the server that does it. Or how the data is used. The article also speaks of students who have had...

          I don't see a huge issue with simply taking attendance using this method as long as students are made fully aware of the practice

          Yes, but how can a student verify what tracking is actually taking place, they dont control the server that does it. Or how the data is used. The article also speaks of students who have had difficulties making the app actually realise that they were in class, which would need to be fixed.

          or restricted to students who have already been identified as at-risk.

          This seems open to abuse. A simple "we dont like you" could be reason enough, and I doubt there would be much of a way to dispute it. It could be used as punishment "if you dont get at least x marks, you will be tracked". And it absolutely cannot be combined with incentive or punishment "students who dont opt in to tracking dont get this benefit".

          If someone needs tracking because they are a legitimate danger, like a suspected shooter, then thats a matter for police, not a university.

          3 votes
          1. Leonidas
            Link Parent
            I agree, the issues mentioned in the article need to be ironed out before instructors try to rely solely on this method of attendance-taking. I'm not saying that such methods are ideal, just that...

            Yes, but how can a student verify what tracking is actually taking place, they dont control the server that does it. Or how the data is used. The article also speaks of students who have had difficulties making the app actually realise that they were in class, which would need to be fixed.

            I agree, the issues mentioned in the article need to be ironed out before instructors try to rely solely on this method of attendance-taking.

            This seems open to abuse. A simple "we dont like you" could be reason enough, and I doubt there would be much of a way to dispute it. It could be used as punishment "if you dont get at least x marks, you will be tracked". And it absolutely cannot be combined with incentive or punishment "students who dont opt in to tracking dont get this benefit".

            I'm not saying that such methods are ideal, just that restricted uses like that are more appropriate than the blanket-tracking methods which these universities have apparently implemented. As far as better uses go, I was thinking more along the lines of implementing location analysis for specific students who have been identified by advisers or college therapists as struggling in the academic setting, and using that data as part of a more comprehensive guidance network based primarily on human interactions, not just the automatic determinations of algorithms. However, this does raise the point that if a student needs that level of babysitting, are they really suited for college in the first place? It certainly isn't for everyone, even if it's been marketed as a universal necessity.

            2 votes
    2. Weldawadyathink
      Link Parent
      That parent stood out to me as well. If you don't have a good enough relationship to communicate and trust someone, you should not be giving them $30,000.

      That parent stood out to me as well. If you don't have a good enough relationship to communicate and trust someone, you should not be giving them $30,000.

      4 votes
  4. patience_limited
    Link
    Just a reminder - on Android phones, turning off Bluetooth does not turn Bluetooth off. Google Location History uses it anyway, both to provide precise location and specifically to respond to beacons.

    Just a reminder - on Android phones, turning off Bluetooth does not turn Bluetooth off. Google Location History uses it anyway, both to provide precise location and specifically to respond to beacons.

    11 votes