Last month the University of Missouri REQUIRED student athletes to install an app, SpotterEDU, on their devices to track their attendance in class. The justification was that the university was spending scholarship money on these students and needed to protect its investment. Mizzou attempted to calm privacy fears by stating that the app only connected to bluetooth beacons inside the classroom to record attendance and did not have a GPS feature to track students outside of the classroom.  But it is not a leap to see where this demonstration program is going. After a  year or two’s worth of data is massaged to prove the positive impact of the app, or an enterprising student successfully sues the university for civil rights violations for not requiring this of all students,  Mizzou will require ALL students to install the app. We’ve seen this dance done far too often

Critics of the attendance apps  say they “infantilize” students, acting as a nagging nanny who is there to remind them to behave a responsible way. Part of the point of college is to allow students to practice responsible adult behavior, including managing their time, in a somewhat protected environment. There are plenty of other ways to track attendance which actually require the student to be more conscientious of their time management, like signing in at class, which accomplish the same goals without the stealth technology. “Hands free” tracking robs them of those opportunities. Like muscles, skills that we don’t use atrophy.  You never really learn to ride the bike until you take the training wheels off.

Students should be responsible for their own class attendance and face the consequences of not attending. That in itself can be very instructional. In some cases, advanced students can learn the material through assigned reading alone so attendance is not even necessary, which makes these apps  unnecessary or even punitive.

With the improvement of facial recognition technology, many higher ed institutions are using FRT to do the same thing as the tracking apps. This will get them around the civil rights claims and avoid the problems with students who object to participation.  Once the cameras are in place and the software activated, adding a few more cameras to “problem areas” around campus is inevitable. Ubiquitous surveillance is not far behind because it is incrementally so easy. Just ask China.

Universities using the attendance tracking apps have left the door open to possible FRT in the future. These colleges already use SpotterEDU:

  • Auburn
  • Central Florida
  • Indiana
  • Missouri
  • Syracuse University
  • Duke University, and 
  • University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

The last two are on the list at banfacialrecognition.com as universities who “might use” FRT in the future.

Electronic Frontier Foundation lists these concerns with FRT:

Privacy Face surveillance is becoming an all-encompassing tool for government to track where we are, what we are doing, and who we are with, regardless of whether we’re suspected of a crime or not. Today, most drivers’ DMV photos are shared with law enforcement agencies.

Protest Face surveillance will chill and deter people from protesting in public places.

Error Many face recognition systems have unacceptably high error rates. This means innocent people will be subjected to erroneous police scrutiny.

Discrimination The “false positive” error rates are significantly higher for women, children, and people of color.

This means that face recognition has an unfair discriminatory impact. Also, cameras are over-deployed in neighborhoods with immigrants and people of color, and new spying technologies like face surveillance amplify existing disparities in the criminal justice system

Students are starting to say “enough!” On March 2nd students across the country plan to protest use of FRT by institutions of higher education.  Fifty universities have declared they will not use the technology. Another thirty seven might use it, plan to use it, or are already using it. Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP), the NYCLU, and Fight for the Future, have offered to help student activist groups plan for their day of action. This may include: petition signature drives,  open letters to administrators, or even tabling events or creative acts of protest.

Ideologically these groups may be a little further left than most of MEW’s readers but, taking a page from the intersectionalists, sometimes linking arms with those whose venn set crosses ours is a successful strategy to achieve our mutual goals.

The encroachment into personal privacy is absolutely the frog in the pot of warming water. An app here. A camera there. Check-ins with school counselors. Eventually the institutions will claim a right to “know you better than you know yourself”… “for your own benefit.”

Are Mizzou students ready to say “enough”?

If you want to get involved or help coordinate a Day of Action event on your campus, email team@fightforthefuture.org

Anne Gassel

Anne has been writing on MEW since 2012 and has been a citizen lobbyist on Common Core since 2013. Some day she would like to see a national Hippocratic oath for educators “I will remember that there is an art to teaching as well as science, and that warmth, sympathy and understanding are sometimes more important than policy or what the data say. My first priority is to do no harm to the children entrusted to my temporary care.”

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