A college in Michigan has walked back its plans to mandate that students living on campus wear a device that tracks their vital signs as part of its coronavirus reopening plan.
In early July, Oakland University, a research-heavy school north of Detroit with around 20,000 students, had declared that anyone living in residence halls must wear a BioButton, a silver dollar-sized stick-on device that collects biometric data like body temperature, heart rate, and cough frequency. The device’s creators claim they can use this data along with a machine learning algorithm to detect possible coronavirus cases before the infection spreads.
The school backed down after students launched a petition that attracted just under 2,500 signatures, with objections ranging from concerns about privacy and personal freedom to religious complaints comparing the biometric device to the mark of the devil.
“People were worried about the privacy issue,” said Tyler Dixon, the student who started the petition. “The idea of having something on me all the time frightened me. Some of my friends are religious and they had religious qualms.” Particularly, some apparently felt it was too close to the Mark of the Beast foretold in the Book of Revelations.
It’s worth noting that non-students could sign the petition, and some of the comments bear a strong resemblance to anti-mask sentiments that have become common during the pandemic. Nevertheless, the school’s administrators buckled. While the school will still offer the BioButton to all on-campus residents, it has changed its policy to make use of the devices optional.
James Mault, MD, the CEO and chairman of the device’s maker, BioIntelliSense, blamed “unfortunate speculation that has set off the resistance to this practice.”
“It doesn’t know if you are at the bar or library,” Mault told Motherboard, saying that the device doesn’t track the wearer’s physical location. The company received FDA approval to manufacture and market its stick-on biometrics tracker in January of this year. It measures changes in biometrics against an individual norm and was made to monitor patients after they leave a hospital. Starting in March, the company has fielded inquiries from those hoping to use it as a COVID-19 precaution. “When shit hit in the fan, I was getting calls from the biggest tech companies, the largest auto manufacturers to get out thousands of stickers,” said Mault.
So far, Oakland University and the Cayman Islands, which offers a shorter quarantine period to travelers who wear BioButton, have made the device part of their reopening plans.
Addressing the privacy concerns, Mault claims that overseers at institutions like Oakland University would only see a red “X” or green check for every user. “The only thing the school is going to know whether or not you are clear to go to school the next morning,” he said.
He added that the data is encrypted in transit from the devices to cloud computers that create results for administrators, and that the data is legally protected from sale or misuse under HIPAA guidelines. He compared the information to the temperature checks and questions about contacts and travel that have become required to access some public spaces in the coronavirus era.
As knowledge of the virus evolves and expands, tech companies have raced to offer solutions in the form of data-collecting surveillance tools—many of which have failed to live up to their promises. For example, virology experts have criticized companies selling “fever-detecting” camera systems, noting that a large portion of virus-carriers don’t show a fever.
Zandrea Ambrose, PhD, a virologist at the University of Pittsburgh, was critical of whether BioButton could effectively track the virus’ spread. COVID-19 is now understood as a tricky mismatch of symptoms that only sometimes appear, and that could be signs of other ailments, she told Motherboard. This is particularly true for children and young adults.
“Fever is associated in less than 50 percent of covid-19 patients,” said Ambrose. “I don't know that respiratory rate can easily be associated with COVID-19 unless [the device] is monitoring it constantly for long periods of time. Exercise could affect respiratory rate.”
Coughing is the symptom most associated with the virus, she added. But that doesn’t account for people with seasonal allergies or some other type of lung disease.
Ambrose said she doesn’t “find this type of monitoring particularly helpful, particularly for asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic individuals.”