US colleges are trying to install location tracking apps on students’ phones

Barely over a year ago, we pointed out how dystopian it seemed when Chinese schools added “smart uniforms” to track their students’ attendance. But US colleges are already testing out a similar tactic with a location tracking app, which students are now apparently expected to install on their phones. I say “apparently” because there’s some confusion over whether the schools are actually forcing this on their students. The Kansas City Star reported that at the University of Missouri, new students “won’t be given a choice” of whether to install the SpotterEDU app, which uses Apple’s iBeacons to broadcast a Bluetooth signal that can help the phone figure out whether a student is actually in a room. But a university spokesperson told Campus Reform on Sunday that only athletes are technically required to use the app, and a new statement from the university on Monday not only claims that it’s “completely optional” for students, but that the app’s being piloted with fewer than 2 percent of the student body.
What the reports do agree on: the app uses local Bluetooth signals, not GPS, so it’s probably not going to be very useful to track students outside of school. “No GPS tracking is enabled, meaning the technology cannot locate the students once they leave class,” reads part of the university’s statement.SpotterEDU isn’t just used at the University of Missouri, though — it’s being tested at nearly 40 schools, company founder and former college basketball coach Rick Carter told The Washington Post in December. The Post’s story makes it sound remarkably effective, with one Syracuse professor attesting that classes have never been so full, with more than 90 percent attendance. But that same professor attested that an earlier version of the app did have access to GPS coordinates, if only for a student to proactively share their location with a teacher.
And Spotter isn’t the only company marketing this idea to administrators: another startup, Degree Analytics, uses Wi-Fi signals instead of Bluetooth to serve an additional 19 schools, the Post reports. In September, The New York Times wrote about a similar app from a company called FanMaker that provides “loyalty points” to students who stick around to watch college sports games at the stadium instead of skipping out. That app is in use at 40 schools, the Times wrote.

It doesn’t seem like any of these specific systems are particularly invasive, and it currently sounds like (most) students will be able to opt out. But it also sounds like the idea of tracking students’ locations is being quietly normalized, in a way that smacks of surveillance (compare to how some previous pilot programs attempted to track students equipped with RFID-embedded ID cards).

It’s not unthinkable that future apps might tell schools more about students’ behavior, and that it may become harder to say no.

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