Harvard plans to track students' WiFi signals for coronavirus contact tracing

Experts point to inaccuracy and data privacy concerns related to WiFi surveillance.

Students would lose access to the university’s WiFi if they do not want to participate.

Harvard is developing a system that would track students’ WiFi signals to aid in COVID-19 contact tracing.

Harvard University began piloting an initiative to track students’ WiFi signals in order to aid in coronavirus contact tracing during the fall.

The university developed an application called TraceFi, which collects a datetime stamp, the signal strength received by Harvard’s WiFi infrastructure, and the unique identifying code assigned to that device by the manufacturer, known as a MAC address.

 According to the university, with this information, “the strength of the signals can be triangulated to estimate whether two or more devices are within a small distance of each other.” If a student tests positive for COVID-19, Harvard University Health Services and Harvard University Information Technology will coordinate to notify the students who might have come near the infected person.

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According to the university, “If someone does not want to be noticed at all, he can turn off Wi-Fi service for his device.” 

However, with no other way to opt-out of the program, students would presumably lose access to WiFi in their residence halls.

Some Harvard officials are willing to try TraceFi in order to ensure a safe return to campus. Harvard University Professor of Government and Technology as well as Harvard Data Privacy Lab Director Latanya Sweeney told the Harvard Crimson that conventional “contact tracing alone does not give us enough protection to stop outbreaks from happening that turn places like Currier into a cruise ship.”

Although Harvard said, “the captured Wi-Fi information does not contain a person’s name or Harvard ID or any personal identifier,” others believe that TraceFi breaches students’ privacy and may allow data to be used for other purposes.

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Tim Hwang, a research fellow at the Center for Security and Emerging Technology at Georgetown University, told the Crimson that tracing WiFi signals is a “very inexact science.” He explained that radio signals bounce off obstructions and can be distorted.

He also mentioned that “it has been known in the computer security space for some time that Wi-Fi hotspots are notoriously vulnerable to cybersecurity problems.” He expressed concern that mass collection of data may result in “pressure to use that data for purposes other than what it was collected for.”

Electronic Frontier Foundation Senior Staff Attorney Andrew Crocker also spoke out against the contact-tracing initiative. EFF describes itself as the “leading nonprofit organization defending civil liberties in the digital world.”

”Harvard’s TraceFi appears to be the introduction of powerful new location surveillance for everyone on their campus. As we’ve written, location-based tracking is both highly invasive and is unlikely to be accurate enough to assist contact tracers in stopping the spread of COVID-19. Students should not be asked to sacrifice their privacy to use this technology,” Crocker told Campus Reform

Crocker further took issue with Harvard’s claim that students can “opt-out.”  He pointed out that the “opt-out” “asks people to choose between connectivity (required to participate in classes and campus life) and location privacy.”

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @BenZeisloft