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Cyber Security and COVID: What It Means For You

Written by
Evan Robins
and
and
December 6, 2021
Cyber Security and COVID: What It Means For You
Photo by Waldemar Brandt on Unsplash.

It’s the start of another day at Trent University. You, an undergrad student, wake up three minutes late for the bus you catch everyday, scramble to get your things together, and rush to get to class. By the time you find your seat, the class has just barely started, and you’re about to breathe a sigh of relief until… your phone buzzes. Sound familiar? 

Since the return to mostly in-person classes in September 2021, public health protocols such as masks, vaccine mandates, and frequent hand sanitizing have become routine for most Trent students. Perhaps the most obvious of Trent’s measures to control the spread of Covid on campus is the daily self-assessment each student must fill out online, lest they receive the dreaded reminder email. Any time a student on campus connects to Trent’s Wi-Fi network, they are automatically sent an email reminding them to complete their daily Covid-19 self-assessment, provided they have not done so already.

However, this begs the question: what is Trent doing with all this data? Despite the increasing ubiquity of digital screenings and contact-tracing measures, the ability to automatically track any registered student or member of faculty on campus might represent, to some, a severe breach of privacy. To dig into this further, I collected as much information as I could find about Trent’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic, especially the digital measures they’ve put in place to monitor Covid-19 symptoms and vaccination status among students.

Among the Frequently Asked Questions on the various subsidiary websites for Trent’s Covid response initiatives, the university assures students that all data is stored in secure servers, “which are protected with robust next generation firewalls and are continuously monitored by our security information and event management system.” As it stands, the principal duty falls to the individual student to complete, follow and report the results of their daily self-assessment. While according to the FAQ, Trent stores the pass/fail result — as well as the associated name — on their server for a period of 90 days, they maintain that the screening results “[are] not to be used as a clinical assessment tool or intended to take the place of medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.”

Furthermore, any visitors to Trent University campus are subject to the rules laid out in their visitor’s policy. That said, there is nothing to stop any person from walking onto Trent’s campus and using the facilities, with no way for the university to determine their vaccination status, or if they are suffering from Covid-19 symptoms. One might then wonder, what’s the point of mandating students, staff and contract workers to fill out this assessment? There seem to be holes in this sort of voluntary data collection. When asked about these possible vulnerabilities, Trent Communications, on behalf of Associate Vice President (AVP) of students Nona Robinson, responded that: “Active screening is in place on campus for the Trent Athletics Centre and dining halls, following Provincial requirements. Signs are also posted at all building entrances on campus to remind all students, staff, faculty and visitors to complete the screening before entering.”

All told, there are ways one can dodge the Covid measures, down to simply ignoring them altogether. If one were to simply go to campus without their Wi-Fi turned on, by all accounts Trent would have no way of tracing their presence on campus unless the student tapped their student card at one of the various card readers or cafeterias. Trent Communications assured Arthur that “[they] have not seen evidence of students choosing not to connect to Wi-Fi in an effort to hide from daily screening requirements.” Even so, last year, when access to all buildings was vetted through the student card, students would not receive the self-assessment email so long as they had not connected to Wi-Fi, even if their presence on campus could theoretically have been logged. The lack of consistency between Trent’s various methods of contact tracing could easily spark confusion - confusion which is only exacerbated with the university’s response to the rollout of the Ontario vaccine passport. 

Starting in September of 2021, in order to access campus, students have been obliged to provide proof of full vaccination, or have otherwise applied to receive a vaccine exemption on a medical or human rights basis. On the MyTrent portal, under the “Services” tab, students will find a button which leads to their vaccination profile, wherein they are asked to separately upload a PDF or JPEG of each proof of vaccination. According to AVP of students Nona Robinson, “The University has implemented robust health and safety protocols on campus in order to ensure the safety of our community. Trent’s online and in-person screening systems, combined with our high vaccination rate (96% for students; 97% for staff and faculty), mask requirements, and regular wastewater testing significantly reduce any negative consequences in the unlikely event a member of the Trent community or broader community comes to campus following a failed screening, or did not complete their daily screening.”

It is worth noting that the remaining 4% of unvaccinated students would represent nearly 500 individuals (based on Trent’s enrolment figures for 2021). Proof of vaccination was initially required for campus access at the beginning of the semester, but starting in mid-October, also became mandatory for indoor dining at any of the restaurants, cafs, or food service locations on campus. However, prior to the release of the Ontario government’s “enhanced” vaccine certificate equipped with a QR code, staff working in the cafeterias were not permitted to ask for proof of vaccination, and the only way to verify a student’s vaccination status so that they might eat lunch inside was provided they paid with their student card. 

In the short privacy disclaimer underneath the vaccine portal, the site notes that this information is collected under the Trent University Act, 1963 Section 18 (3) (c), which reads, “The President is Vice-Chancellor and chief executive officer of the University who shall supervise and direct the implementation of the educational policy and general administration of the University, the teaching staff thereof and the students thereof.” While this gives President Leo Groarke the authority to mandate the collection of this data, it notably does not address the implications this data collection might pose to students’ privacy.

This article leaves a lot of questions unanswered as to how Trent is using this data, and to what extent the precedent set by this year’s measures will affect security and student privacy for years to come. Despite addressing some of the topical concerns about Trent’s data collection, cyber security, and Covid response, there is much more to consider about how extraordinary circumstances (such as, say, a global pandemic) can allow the introduction of new security measures - a vein of inquiry which this publication is interested in pursuing. In the follow-up to this piece, Arthur will examine how Trent’s security measures have changed over time, and what that means for the student population in future. Until such time, I’ll leave you with this question: just how comfortable are you with being watched?

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How to customize formatting for each rich text

"Headings, paragraphs, blockquotes, figures, images, and figure captions can all be styled after a class is added to the rich text element using the "When inside of" nested selector system."
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