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College’s lockdown-violation snitching app that uses public relief funds faces scrutiny

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The pandemic and subsequent lockdowns have brought out the snitch in many citizens. But legal experts warn that a COVID “violation” reporting app being used at University of North Carolina (UNC) and the surrounding community violates privacy, could result in discrimination, and could be used to target specific students for disciplinary action.

Both the University and the app’s creator dismissed the privacy and discrimination concerns.

UNC used public funding from the North Carolina Coronavirus Relief Fund via the North Carolina Policy Collaboratory to build a COVID violations reporting app. The app, called “SaferWays,” encourages the reporting of COVID violations, such as lack of masks and non-compliance with social distancing rules. The app provides real-time updates, allowing the police and the university to pinpoint exactly where the infraction was committed.

However, the app is a violation of privacy, according to law experts at the Southeastern Legal Foundation, an Atlanta-based conservative non-profit law firm. The law firm has sent several letters to universities noting the potential legal problems with the coronavirus restrictions.

“Apps that ask students to report other students-even if not by name-for not wearing masks or for standing closer than 6 feet, are simply the newest version of the tattle-tale reports that popped up on college campuses last August,” said Kimberly Hermann, a lawyer at Southeastern Legal, speaking to The College Fix.

Hermann added that “the Big Brother reporting encouraged by these new apps will no doubt result in chilled speech and discrimination enforcement.”

She continued to argue that the anonymity in reporting “does not fix the potential for constitutional violations.”

“Reports may be used in real time to silence students and to cherry pick students for disciplinary action,” Hermann explained.

However, a professor who helped create the app insists that the app does not violate privacy and dismissed the discrimination concerns.

“The data collected using the Safer Ways app focuses on locations and does not identify the name of individuals,” Kurt Ribisl, a co-creator of the app and the chair of the health behavior department at UNC said. “As a result, it would be of limited utility for punishing individuals or groups who violate university or local COVID regulations.”

“We have not heard of law enforcement using our app to ticket or fine students,” the health professor said in response to a question about students being reprimanded for use of the app.

“SaferWays is a digital tool created to track community perceptions of risk and of crowding,” Ribisl said, as well as “physical distancing, and mask wearing in real-time on and around UNC campus to inform decision-making and reduce COVID risk.”
The university’s response was similar.

“It’s important to clarify that the University administration has not adopted the SaferWays app and is not using the app to monitor student behavior,” the university’s media and relations team told The College Fix in an email.

“It does not include information on specific individuals, nor does it include a way to report on specific individuals,” the university added.

But, officials at the campus “encourage our community to call the police immediately…if they witness activities that are not in compliance with COVID-19 Community Standards.” The email stated that the app helps because “incidents are more challenging to investigate after they occur, or refer  behavior to Student Conduct.”

It is worth noting that neither the app’s creator or the university provided any insight on the safeguards put in place to make sure law enforcement and the university’s administration do not use the app to target and punish specific students.

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