The University of Alabama Wants to Increase Football Game Attendance with App that Tracks Students

This blog post was created for The New York Semester on Media and Communications (Fall 2019) at Drew University.

Last season, the attendance at The University of Alabama football games fell to a shocking 22-year low. Nick Saban, head football coach, struggled to find a solution for an issue that was foreign to the university’s popular football program. Opting to look at what students hold dearest (their cell phones), The University of Alabama created an answer that has now become a contributing concern to nationwide data privacy practices. 

The solution to the school’s low attendance rates at football games is a system that would reward its students with substantial discounts on tickets for the school’s biggest football games. And the only cost is their location. Using the app’s GPS tracking function, the University of Alabama has the ability to see which students stay for the entirety of Alabama football games and who leaves early. Initially created to discourage students from leaving games to go drink, the app rewards the ones who stay, granting them points which in turn can be exchanged for better tickets to end-of-season games. 

The program, which they call the Tide Royalty Points App, is controversial to many such as technology writer Charlie Warzel who discusses the debate in an opinion piece in the New York Times.  In his article, Warzel points to the most interesting part of this privacy issue: the fact that we don’t even know if it’s an issue. In contrast to most privacy concerns, the students are actually aware that they are being tracked. Unlike recent digital privacy cases such as YouTube’s Child Privacy Law violation, the lines are blurred here because the invasion is consensual. In fact, students are completely okay with it due to the promise of reward. 

Adam Schwartz, a lawyer for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, is still wary of this concept; he argues that the school’s use of this app is rewarding its students for giving up their privacy which is an inappropriate decision for a school to make: “A public university is a teacher, telling students what is proper in a democratic society.” Interestingly enough, this instance points to a much larger issue of incentives being offered for the sacrifice of privacy. 

The uniqueness of this privacy-related incident raises many questions. As communities adapt to advancing technologies that are intended to ‘make life easier,’ keeping up with proper privacy practices becomes increasingly harder. The intentions of the Tide Royalty Points app appear to be safe but some say the social constraints of certain institutions create different expectations for digital privacy. For instance, if the app were developed by the NFL would there be such a backlash? Is the university under scrutiny because of its expectations to protect the data of its students? The University of North Carolina released a similar app, which tracks student-athletes to make sure they’re in class. Could this be taking it too far?

Warzel continues, with this idea in mind, to examine broader groups, such as the general advertising in Silicon Valley. From a broader perspective, Warzel claims that technology usage has historically been framed as an “opt-in” program for individuals, thus making privacy the responsibility of the individual user. But this is not necessarily the case because as long as you live online, you are ‘opted in.’ The solution, he writes, is shifting the responsibility of digital privacy from the individual user to the institution that lives on the other end of the screen.

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