U.S. Universities Roll Out China-Style Social Credit Tracking for Students

People look at smartphones in Huawei's first global flagship store in Shenzhen, Guangdong province, China October 30, 2019. REUTERS/Aly Song
December 30, 2019 Topic: Technology Region: Americas Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: Social CreditUniversitySurveillanceSilicon ValleyBig Tech

U.S. Universities Roll Out China-Style Social Credit Tracking for Students

'They want those points,' one professor said. 'So, behaviorally, they change.'

A handful of U.S. colleges are employing a type of social credit system through various technologies designed to track students as they attend courses and walk across campus.

Universities across the country are using the so-called SpotterEDU app to connect with apps on students’ smartphones for the purpose of boosting their “attendance points.” The app also sees their absences and logs that information into a campus database that tracks them.

“They want those points,” Syracuse University Professor Jeff Rubin, who teaches Introduction to Information Technologies, told The Washington Post. “They know I’m watching and acting on it. So, behaviorally, they change.” He was referring to the app’s ability to socially engineer his students.

WaPo published a Dec. 24 report discussing the SpotterEDU app.

Not every student is on board with the app and its implications.

“We’re adults. Do we really need to be tracked?” Robby Pfeifer, a sophomore at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, told WaPo. “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?”

Pfeifer’s campus recently began logging the attendance of students connected to the campus’s WiFi network, which empowers colleges to track hundreds of thousands of students more precisely than at any other time in American history.

SpotterEDU works with about 40 schools, including Central Florida, Missouri and Indiana, according to company chief, Rick Carter, a former college basketball coach. He developed the app in 2015 to watch over his athletes as they navigated their respective campuses.

The app uses bluetooth beacons, which installers stick on walls and ceilings, to ping a student’s smartphone, WaPo reported. The app then records a students’ presence so advisers know when they are not in attendance or have temporarily stepped out of the room for a break.

“Students today have so many distractions,” Tami Chievous, an associate athletic director at the University of Missouri, told WaPo, adding that tracking students is a tough assignment. “We have to make sure they’re doing the right thing.”

Carter created a euphemism to explain what his app does. He told WaPo he prefers the term “monitored” instead of “tracked,” because the former supposedly carries a negative connotation. “It’s about building that relationship,” so students “know you care about them,” he said.

Schools can turn to a start-up called Degree Analytics, which uses WiFi check-ins to track roughly 200,000 students across 19 state universities, WaPo reported. Over 98% of a college’s students can be measured and analyzed through Degree Analytics, according to data scientist Aaron Benz, who developed the app in 2017.

Benz’s team designed a set of high-tech algorithms to look for patterns in a student’s behavior and automatically flag when their habits change, a strategy he euphemistically calls scaffolding. Students who deviate from their everyday rhythms are flagged for anomalies.

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Image: Reuters.