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

Short-range phone sensors and campuswide WiFi networks are empowering colleges across the United States to track hundreds of thousands of students more precisely than ever.Diptendu Dutta/AFP via Getty Images

WASHINGTON — When Syracuse University freshmen walk into professor Jeff Rubin’s Introduction to Information Technologies class, seven small Bluetooth beacons hidden around the Grant Auditorium lecture hall connect with an app on their smartphones and boost their ‘‘attendance points.’’

And when they skip class? The SpotterEDU app sees that, too, logging their absence into a campus database that tracks them over time and can sink their grade. It also alerts Rubin, who later contacts students to ask where they’ve been. His 340-person lecture has never been so full.

‘‘They want those points,’’ he said. ‘‘They know I’m watching and acting on it. So, behaviorally, they change.’’


Short-range phone sensors and campuswide WiFi networks are empowering colleges across the United States to track hundreds of thousands of students more precisely than ever. Dozens of schools use such technology to monitor students’ academic performance, analyze their conduct, or assess their mental health.

But some professors and education advocates argue that the systems represent a new low in intrusive technology, breaching students’ privacy on a massive scale. The tracking systems, they worry, will infantilize students in the very place where they’re expected to grow into adults, further training them to see surveillance as a normal part of living, whether they like it or not.

‘‘We’re adults. Do we really need to be tracked?’’ said Robby Pfeifer, a sophomore at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, which recently began logging the attendance of students connected to the campus’ WiFi network. ‘‘Why is this necessary? How does this benefit us? . . . And is it just going to keep progressing until we’re micromanaged every second of the day?’’

This style of surveillance has become just another fact of life for many Americans. A flood of cameras, sensors, and microphones, wired to an online backbone, now can measure people’s activity and whereabouts with striking precision, reducing the mess of everyday living into trend lines that companies promise to help optimize.


Americans say in surveys they accept the technology’s encroachment because it often feels like something else: a trade-off of future worries for the immediacy of convenience, comfort, and ease. If a tracking system can make students be better, one college adviser said, isn’t that a good thing?

But the perils of increasingly intimate supervision — and the subtle way it can mold how people act — has also led some to worry whether anyone will truly know when all this surveillance has gone too far. ‘‘Graduates will be well prepared . . . to embrace 24/7 government tracking and social credit systems,’’ one commenter on the Slashdot message board said. ‘‘Building technology was a lot more fun before it went all 1984.’’

Instead of GPS coordinates, the schools rely on networks of Bluetooth transmitters and wireless access points to piece together students’ movements from dorm to desk. One company that uses school WiFi networks to monitor movements says it gathers 6,000 location data points per student every day.

School and company officials call location monitoring a powerful booster for student success: If they know more about where students are going, they argue, they can intervene before problems arise. But some schools go even further, using systems that calculate personalized ‘‘risk scores’’ based on factors such as whether the student is going to the library enough.

The dream of some administrators is a university where every student is a model student, adhering to disciplined patterns of behavior that are intimately quantified, surveilled, and analyzed.


But some educators say this move toward heightened educational vigilance threatens to undermine students’ independence and prevents them from pursuing interests beyond the classroom because they feel they might be watched.

‘‘These administrators have made a justification for surveilling a student population because it serves their interests, in terms of the scholarships that come out of their budget, the reputation of their programs, the statistics for the school,’’ said Kyle M. L. Jones, an Indiana University assistant professor who researches student privacy.

‘‘What’s to say that the institution doesn’t change their eye of surveillance and start focusing on minority populations, or anyone else?’’ he added. Students ‘‘should have all the rights, responsibilities, and privileges that an adult has. So why do we treat them so differently?’’

Students disagree on whether the campus-tracking systems are a breach of privacy, and some argue they have nothing to hide. But one feeling is almost universally shared, according to interviews with more than a dozen students and faculty members: that the technology is becoming ubiquitous, and that the people being monitored — their peers, and themselves — can’t really do anything about it.

‘‘It embodies a very cynical view of education — that it’s something we need to enforce on students, almost against their will,’’ said Erin Rose Glass, a digital scholarship librarian at the University of California San Diego. ‘‘We’re reinforcing this sense of powerlessness . . . when we could be asking harder questions, like: Why are we creating institutions where students don’t want to show up?’’


SpotterEDU chief Rick Carter, a former college basketball coach, said he founded the app in 2015 as a way to watch over student athletes: Many schools already pay ‘‘class checkers’’ to make sure athletes remain eligible to play.

The company now works with nearly 40 schools, he said, including such universities as Auburn, Central Florida, Columbia, Indiana, and Missouri, as well as several smaller colleges and a public high school. More than 1.5 million student check-ins have been logged this year nationwide, including in graduate seminars and chapel services.