University mandates wearable COVID-19 tracker, sparking student protest

Despite the continued spread of COVID-19 throughout the world, schools have developed reopening plans for the fall semester — some with fully remote classes, others in traditional classrooms. Having opted to open both classrooms and residence halls, Michigan’s Oakland University will require residents and staff to wear COVID-19 trackers, a move that has led to a petition drive against the mandate.

Under the new rules, which students say were quietly introduced on a student life web page at the end of July, resident students “must wear a BioButton,” a device introduced in May to continuously monitor a person’s vital signs for 90 days. Developer BioIntellisense says that the coin-sized, disposable device can track temperature, respiratory rate, heart rate, body position, sleep, and activity state with medical-grade accuracy, enabling monitoring of students, workers, and high-risk patients without their active participation. In theory, the technology could be useful for businesses and educational institutions interested in bringing people back into physical gathering spaces.

Unsurprisingly, the petitioning students object to being continuously tracked on and off campus, and are citing a collection of valid concerns, ranging from violations of personal privacy to religious objections, as well as the absence of any agreement to the new requirement. While the petition isn’t demanding a stop to the use of BioButtons, it’s asking the university to make the trackers optional for staff and students, a step that would decrease the system’s efficacy — assuming that it works as expected.

COVID-19 tracing technologies remain controversial due to a mix of privacy concerns and implementation limitations. Potential solutions such as the Apple-Google smartphone-based exposure notification system still have yet to be widely deployed in the United States, and lack access to personal vital sign tracking, relying instead on self-reporting of positive COVID-19 diagnoses. Alternatives such as BioButton could provide earlier and more detailed warnings of possible illness, but it’s unclear whether most schools will rely upon wearable sensors, or simply keep their physical classrooms closed in favor of safe remote instruction.

As of press time, the petition has over 2,200 signatures, which represents over 10% of the university’s total student population of roughly 20,000. Though some of the signatures have come from former Oakland students and people who appear to be unaffiliated with the university, the petition is likely to gather further steam as more students, staff, and members of the general public become aware of the school’s new policies.

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