Students at Westminster College will be required to download a new tracking app — called “Westminster Safe” — during the Fall semester in an effort to track and prevent the spread of the coronavirus, the school announced Aug. 10.
However, details surrounding the app remain vague as the school has not released information on where to download the system or how it will enforce usage. As of Tuesday, the college confirmed the development of the app was delayed, so these decisions are not yet finalized.
The app, created by alum Taymour Semnani, tracks who students have been close to for more than 15 minutes. The system then uses the data to alert those who have been in contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19.
“No data are collected by the College or any third party,” said Daniel Cairo, interim dean of students, in a mass email sent out to students. “Data are stored on your smartphone only.”
That way, Cairo said, the app doesn’t identify who is who — it only notifies a student when their device has been in proximity to another device whose user has been infected.
“Community adoption of ‘Westminster Safe’ is a key part of keeping you, and our entire campus community, healthy and safe,” Cairo said.
It’s not immediately clear how the college will enforce students to use the app, or how it will guarantee the safety of students’ privacy.
However, the requirement has been met with some hesitation from students — with varying levels of support and disagreement.
“I understand the intention, but I am deeply skeptical on how to enforce it,” said Blaine Whitford, a senior history major. “You have this data — how are you going to make sure […] people’s data is protected?”
Whitford noted he would feel more secure in the decision if he knew what company was storing the data. Simply stating the app was created by a Westminster alum isn’t enough, he said.
“I’d like to know how is this being paid for?” he said. “I’m also interested in knowing the background and information on the company […] I want to know what that company has worked on in the past.”
Despite the uncertainty, Whitford said he understands contact tracing is important. However, he thinks the initiative for a tracking app is only the first step.
“Westminster students don’t just live and exist at Westminster,” he said. “It would be different if we were a boarding school […] and five months at a time we just interacted with other students and we didn’t go anywhere. But that’s not realistic. It’s useful in a limited capacity.”