University walks back mandatory health tracking devices for students to control COVID-19, but experts say it could have been a 'good thing'

Korin Miller
·9 mins read
Oakland University in Rochester, Mich., announced Monday it will no longer require students to wear health tracking devices when they return to the school’s campus in early September, reversing an earlier policy. (Photo: Getty Images)
Oakland University in Rochester, Mich., announced Monday it will no longer require students to wear health tracking devices when they return to the school’s campus in early September, reversing an earlier policy. (Photo: Getty Images)

School officials at Oakland University have announced they will no longer require students to wear health tracking devices when they return to the school’s Rochester, Mich., campus in early September, reversing an earlier policy.

The policy change comes on the heels of a Change.org petition that challenged the school’s requirement that students wear a BioButton, a device that monitors the wearer’s vitals in real time.

The petition was started by Oakland University student Tyler Dixon and garnered more than 2,400 signatures. “Many students are already hesitant, at best, to be tracked as they stay on campus (and as they leave for the weekend to visit home, go to class, grocery shop, etc.),” the petition reads. “A large portion of students feel that this in violation of their privacy.”

Dixon calls himself an “Oakland University enthusiast and someone who bleeds black and gold,” but says fellow students “must object to this and make it optional for all individuals.”

“Masks and socially distancing are understandable and per CDC guidelines, but this seems like a large overreach in terms of student and staff privacy,” he wrote, before encouraging students, staff and family members to speak out against the use of the buttons. Dixon declined Yahoo Life’s request for comment.

“Oakland University is invested in protecting the health and safety of our campus community. For this reason, we are looking to add technology to the many other measures we are implementing to help prevent outbreaks of COVID-19 on campus,” school officials wrote in a statement on Facebook Monday afternoon. “BioButton is a tool that continuously measures heart rate, respiratory rate, and temperature in order to detect abnormalities that can be associated with COVID-19 infections. The information that is gathered from the device is only made available to the wearer. In this way, the specific data are kept private. The wearing of this device is not mandatory.”

The school previously stated in a reopening plan posted on its website that students who live in residence halls “must” wear the button.

Dixon celebrated the announcement with an update on the Change.org petition. “I applaud Oakland University for this decision and I hope that you take the time to thank them for this decision, as well,” he wrote. “Valuing student and community feedback shows that they truly do put students first.”

While the BioButton policy was specific to Oakland University, experts say more schools may have fluid policies while attempting to control the spread of COVID-19 on campus. “Organizations will be learning which interventions add value and which do not in real time,” Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, tells Yahoo Life. But ultimately, it “depends on how much administration really cares about safety or if it is just for show and publicity,” Dr. Richard Watkins, an infectious disease physician in Akron, Ohio, and a professor of internal medicine at the Northeast Ohio Medical University, tells Yahoo Life.

According to a press release on the wearable tech, the BioButton is a “coin-sized, disposable medical device that measures continuous temperature and other vital signs” for 90 days. It can also measure a person’s respiratory rate and heart rate, body position, as well as sleep and activity states. The buttons can also sense “adverse trends” in a person’s health, the press release says. Dr. James Mault, founder and CEO of BioIntelliSense, which makes the BioButton, tells Yahoo Life that the device also has contact tracing capabilities.

Oakland University states on its website that the BioButton screening tool is available “in order to lower the risk of virus outbreaks on campus.” University officials say that the button will be used “in conjunction” with the school’s daily health assessment to determine if students are able to participate in activities on campus. “The individual data will remain private to the wearer and is not shared with others,” the website reads.

But students have not been impressed with the device. “I did not consent to this when I signed my housing contract,” one person wrote in the comments of the Change.org petition. “This should have been stated clearly before contracts were locked, and should have been clearly outlined in any and all emails sent to residents. Hiding this from us is unfair, and what even is the legality of this? Commuters have the option, staff have the option, but residents don’t because we rely on housing?”

“This is an outrageously large invasion of privacy, even for our day and age,” another commenter wrote. “This is something straight out of Fahrenheit 451 or 1984. How this even got this far is incredibly sad. I’m all for everyone trying to stay as safe as possible, but not at this cost.”

While many students aren’t happy about the use of BioButtons, optional or not, infectious disease experts say the use of technology isn’t a bad idea.

“I think that using innovative wearable technology is a good thing,” Adalja says. “Many people are unaware of their physiological status, and this provides important information that can help trigger someone to seek evaluation sooner if an abnormality is detected.”

“It’s taking 21st century technology to a new level,” Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist and professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, tells Yahoo Life. “But I imagine there are a number of students who don’t wish to be tracked that closely.”

Schaffner says this kind of technology makes it “super-easy and super-fast” to detect someone who is sick and to isolate them quickly. Watkins agrees. “Being able to monitor vital signs in real time is a great tool, and I am enthusiastic about its prospects,” he says. “It can theoretically catch when someone is first symptomatic and hopefully reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19 to others.”

Still, experts say the BioButton and any kind of wearable tech aren’t perfect. “It will take students less than five minutes to figure out ways to game the system. They will store them in closets and put them in drawers,” Schaffner says. Adalja is also concerned that the button will create a “false sense of security” for both the students and the school. “It will not be ironclad but can be useful when combined with a comprehensive plan,” he says.

The privacy concern is real, although what the school tried to do is legal, Alan Butler, interim executive director and general counsel of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, tells Yahoo Life. “The laws on the books on most states are really not up to date with respect to this kind of thing,” he says. “Obviously, the pandemic is new, and a lot of devices that track health data, in particular, are quite new. So, there’s not a lot of very clear rules here, especially for students.”

But that “creates significant risk” that students will be “put in a bad position with respect to new data being collected about them” or potentially “being forced to turn over information that they shouldn’t have to,” Butler says.

Butler was concerned about the school’s previous requirement regarding the use of these devices, especially on top of regular temperature checks and other health monitoring. “Why was the school mandating this particular device?” he asks. Some health monitoring devices collect and aggregate data, Butler points out, and that does raise privacy concerns.

But BioIntelliSense’s Mault says that the data collected by the BioButton is treated as personal health information and is “being treated as though it’s part of a legal medical record.” The data is “hosted in an encrypted state in a secure environment that’s also hosting medical records,” he says. “It’s our policy — we will not sell or repurpose your data for any third parties. Some companies have in the past even de-identified data and sold it to marketing agencies. That is absolutely not something that we permit with this system, and it’s in our terms of use.”

The person who uses BioButton gets to decide who they share the information with, “if at all,” Mault says. He stresses that, while the device does contact tracing, it doesn’t use GPS. Instead, he says, “the BioButtons can talk to each other. Any time a BioButton comes into contact with another, that can be recorded. But we don’t know if your location is in the library or at the bar, and the system doesn’t need to know.”

If someone with a BioButton contracts COVID-19, other people who were in close proximity with that person will be notified, Mault says. “You can be notified and make sure you’re not taking it home to your family,” he says.

Adalja is confused about the privacy concerns, given that this is common with other devices and apps that students typically use. “Many smartphone apps share a lot of information, so I am not sure why a BioButton poses any privacy challenge,” he says.

For the latest coronavirus news and updates, follow along at https://news.yahoo.com/coronavirus. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC’s and WHO’s resource guides.

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