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6 May, 2020 22:14

Universities quietly develop personal Covid-19 ‘risk score’ app in bid to mainstream Black Mirror-style social credit for students

Universities quietly develop personal Covid-19 ‘risk score’ app in bid to mainstream Black Mirror-style social credit for students

Three American universities have received government coronavirus funding to create a mobile app combining contact-tracing with an individual “risk score” – mimicking the Chinese apps the US denounced as dystopian nightmares.

The University of Southern California, Emory University, and the University of Texas Health Science Center began work last week on a mobile app that will track the user’s location and Covid-19 symptoms in real time, in the name of “quarantine and decontamination.” The idea is to bestow individual “risk scores” upon not only individuals, but the public locations they visit. Will it stop there, or will it dovetail with the privatized de-facto social credit score already being cobbled together by Big Tech in conjunction with Big Brother?

Also on rt.com Big Tech + Big Brother: Privatized social credit score systems coming to US sooner than we think?

Media coverage of the project neglects to specify whether installing the app will be mandatory for incoming students, but there’s plenty of precedent for forcing students to submit to tracking in order to attend class. A tracking app called Spotter had already been forced on students, pre-coronavirus, at the University of Missouri, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Duke University, among other campuses. 

If colleges assigning incoming students a “risk score” based on their behavior as tracked by their cell phones sounds like a Black Mirror episode, it’s not far off. The virus-tracking project is based on a similar app rolled out in China (and widely condemned in the US) that bestowed color-coded risk ratings based on people’s exposure to carriers, in the standard-issue traffic-light colors of red, green and yellow. The colleges hope to have a mobile app ready by August, in time for the start of the fall semester. 

China’s social credit score is held up as the ne plus ultra of dystopian tracking systems, but the disconcerting multitude of companies scrambling to get in on the ground floor of tracking American citizens under the guise of fighting the coronavirus has the potential to make Beijing’s system look positively tame by comparison. From former Microsoft CEO Bill Gates’ proposed “digital certificates” to failed presidential candidate Mike Bloomberg’s private army of disease detectives to Google and Apple’s contact-tracing platform, Americans’ infection status has become a hot commodity.

At the same time as the private sector is falling all over itself to offer its surveillance services to Washington, public-sector efforts are falling on their face. The UK’s contact-tracing app was widely panned on Monday after early trials showed it was buggy and invasive, while Germany’s efforts to develop a privacy-preserving platform were snarled by a roadblock built into Apple’s iOS. The megacorporation refused to allow the government-backed platform access to Bluetooth data, forcing Berlin to knuckle under and sign on to its private-sector competition. Meanwhile, more than half of Americans have expressed reluctance to embrace Big Brother in the form of a contact-tracing smartphone app.  

An epidemiologist told tech outlet Dot.LA they understood the uphill battle they faced, admitting “It’s going to be difficult to get Americans to agree to involuntary surveillance.”

However, social media has already laid the groundwork for the US’ private-sector social-credit score. An individual who espouses the wrong ideas on Twitter or Facebook finds themselves not only removed from that platform, but often as not booted from Paypal or even asked to close their bank account. Given that a Covid-19 “risk score” will be carried on the same phone as an individual’s social media accounts, and the “exposure alert” platform Google and Apple are working on will eventually be built into the operating system, it’s not outlandish to imagine that these systems will ultimately communicate with each other. 

Even as the American mood continues to disdain mass surveillance, university guinea pigs have always been more pliable than the population at large. Between the general naivety of young adults fresh out of the nest and the heavy weight of student loans college students carry – especially given the Covid-19-decimated job market – any experimental program that offers students a few bucks is likely to be welcomed. And even if it doesn't pay, today's college students have grown up under the eye of Big Brother - tracked by social media, watched by ubiquitous surveillance cameras, their every move analyzed by marketing firms. Any objection to a "risk score" app, especially if presented for their own good, is likely to be muted.

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While most outside university pay little attention to what’s going on inside, the experimental modes of thought – and, increasingly, the surveillance technologies – being foisted onto students there have an unfortunate tendency to escape campus and infect “normal” society. Anyone who believes that what happens in university stays there need only look at the “political correctness” plague that has taken Western society by storm. Professors pushing the concept decades ago instilled it into the brains of their charges, who became the “woke” thought police currently cracking the whip over the brains of the intelligentsia. Their example should not be ignored. 

The young adults being taught to believe social credit scores “because coronavirus” are normal will eventually graduate from university and enter the workplace, bringing with them ideas that would horrify their parents. If it upsets you to hold your tongue because of some “woke” idea of what ‘free speech’ must exclude, imagine what other types of freedom this model can destroy.

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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.