Empower Wisconsin | Dec. 15, 2020
By M.D. Kittle
MADISON — The University of Wisconsin-Madison’s proposed COVID-19 policies for the upcoming semester, including a mandatory tracking app for students, smacks of “Orwellian” government control, according to one state senator and concerned parents.
On Friday, UW Chancellor Rebecca Blank sent students an email regarding “New safety measures for spring semester.”
The edicts include the required use of a mobile app called “Safer Badgers,” which provides information on testing locations and gives students the ability to schedule COVID-19 tests and quickly obtain results. The app also allows access to “additional health resources.”
Here’s where the really creepy Big Brother part comes in:
“The app also provides anonymous, secure notifications to anyone who has been in proximity to another participating app user who has tested positive for COVID-19. Proximity is initially set as 2 hours within about 6 to 10 feet,” Blank’s email states.
That’s a little to “1984” for state Sen. Duey Stroebel — and other Wisconsin residents who have reached out to Empower Wisconsin with concerns.
“Increased testing for COVID-19 next semester makes sense, but I strongly disagree with the University’s decision to embrace what sounds like an Orwellian invasion of student privacy,” the Cedarburg Republican said in a press release. “Forcing students to use an application on their phone to track test compliance and subsequently share that data with ‘trained employees’ who ‘will stand guard outside buildings’ conjures images of a state-run campus in a repressive regime.”
In her email, Blank insists the screen will not show any private health information. It will “simply show” whether UW students are up to date on their testing.
Students will have to show their “Badger Badge” upon request to “trained employees who will monitor access to buildings and campus services. The Safer Badgers website will also allow individuals without smartphones to print a copy of their building access status,” the chancellor’s email states.
A parent of multiple university students said the app, which tracks students’ whereabouts around the clock is “worse than communism.” He said one of his children asked what can be done to “stop this madness.”
“They have no right to know where their students are 24/7 – such an invasion of privacy. I, as their parent, don’t have this right, but UW thinks they do,” wrote the frustrated father, who asked that he not be identified for fear his children would be targeted by the university.
But students may qualify for incentives for using the new testing program, Blank said. It will also help them avoid any “negative consequences triggered by being out of compliance.”
During the spring semester, all UW-Madison undergraduate students living in the greater Madison area will be tested twice weekly. There will be multiple testing sites on campus for student use, according to the chancellor.
Participation in twice-a-week testing is mandatory, regardless of whether students are coming to campus for instruction or to use campus facilities.
Students need to remain up to date with testing in order to access campus buildings in the spring.
“By expanding testing and linking campus access to this testing, we will put additional strong curbs on the spread of the disease,” the chancellor said.
It’s still not enough.
“However, expanded testing, while powerful, can get us only so far. We need everyone in our campus community to continue following other health protocols: Wear a face covering, maintain physical distance, avoid gatherings with people you don’t live with, and wash your hands often,” Blank warned.
Stroebel said no person should be required to put their health information on a smart phone app that shares, in real-time, information with other users in their vicinity. He said the university’s new COVID-19 tracking system flies in the face of the dangers of over-sharing personal information that cyber experts routinely warn against.
“I encourage the University to consider less invasive and controlling methods for keeping their staff and students healthy during this time,” the senator said.