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Legal expert criticizes university’s new COVID violation reporting app funded by state’s relief fund

App developed with taxpayer dollars intended for COVID relief

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill used money intended for COVID relief to create an app that allows people to report potential safety violations on campus and in the surrounding community.

The “SaferWays” application (right) encourages people to report violations on campus, such as a lack of social distancing and non-mask usage. Because the app updates in real-time, law enforcement or university administrators could use the app to pinpoint where to enforce infractions.

Funding for the app came from “the North Carolina Policy Collaboratory” at the public university, “with funding from the North Carolina Coronavirus Relief Fund established and appropriated by the North Carolina General Assembly,” according to the app’s website.

This app raises privacy concerns, according to Kimberly Hermann, the general counsel for the Southeastern Legal Foundation.

“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,” Hermann told The College Fix via email.

Southeastern Legal has sent a number of letters to universities warning them about potential legal problems with their coronavirus guidelines.

She told The Fix that “the Big Brother reporting encouraged by these new apps will no doubt result in chilled speech and discriminatory enforcement.”

“The anonymity built into these apps does not fix the potential for constitutional violations,” Hermann said. “Reports may be used in real time to silence students and to cherry pick students for disciplinary action.”

Her organization has seen this “over and over again with these college tattle-tale policies.”

App creator disputes privacy concerns

However, the university officials, including a professor who created the app, dispute the possibility of privacy violations.

“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, told The Fix via email. “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.”

University encourages people to call police if they see COVID violations

The university provided similar answers, although they still said it encourages people to report COVID violations.

“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,” an unsigned media relations email said.

“It does not include information on specific individuals, nor does it include a way to report on specific individuals,” the media relations team told The Fix.

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

Neither Ribisl nor university officials would say what safeguards are in place to ensure administrators and the police do not use the app to punish students.

MORE: University expels remote student for not coming to campus for COVID testing

IMAGE: Saferways.com

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Frank Kennedy -- University of Toledo