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At Oklahoma State University, students' steps are tracked to stop the coronavirus

The school president says students shouldn't be worried about privacy issues and the "Orwellian effect" because the data is collected for internal use only.
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STILLWATER, Okla. — Newfound freedom is part of the allure of going off to college, but COVID-19 changes things. At Oklahoma State University, the school tracks where students are at all times on campus to slow the spread of the disease.

Oklahoma State tracks the location data of students and staff who are signed on to campus Wi-Fi routers. The school also uses student card swipes, campus purchases and course attendance to complete contact tracing.

Full coverage of the coronavirus outbreak

Students have tested positive at multiple universities that have decided to open their campuses in August. At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill this week, an outbreak prompted administrators to return to distance learning.

Oklahoma State required those living on campus to undergo testing before coming to school for the fall semester, which started Monday.

The school stuck with its campus reopening this week even though 23 members of a sorority tested positive for the coronavirus earlier this month. School officials said they disinfected the house twice and quarantined those sorority members.

Local health officials are conducting contact tracing to determine who might have been exposed to the 23 people infected.

The state of Oklahoma has logged at least 51,746 coronavirus cases since the beginning of the pandemic, but Oklahoma State University says its new technology gives it the confidence to stay open.

To show us how it works, NBC News followed freshman Jared Moore, 18, around campus as the university logged his every move. He swiped a card at the student union.

"Going to grab some milk. No better way to start the day," he said on a GoPro camera provided by the "TODAY" show.

He went to class, where he said: "Just started class. We're all social distancing."

At the gym, a card swipe documented his presence while he worked out.

He ended the day back at his fraternity to hang out with friends.

"Got some guys hanging out in here," Moore said.

The next day, Christie Hawkins, an administrator who runs the school’s contact tracing effort, showed NBC News a digital map with every building Moore entered on campus.

"What we can see, of course, is the buildings that he was in," she said. "Those are the ones that are highlighted.”

But the technology goes even further: Using the school’s more than 5,000 Wi-Fi hot spots, it allows staff to determine not only what building, but also what floor and even what room a sick student may have entered.

Image: Oklahoma State University campus
Oklahoma State Library on the campus of Oklahoma State University in Stillwater, Oklahoma on Oct. 1, 2005.Wesley Hitt / Getty Images file

“We're not saying this student was in a building and here's all the other students in that building,” Hawkins said. “It's much more specific and down through a specific Wi-Fi access point.”

She said that granular, detailed information is key in not only determining who to quarantine, but who not to quarantine.

“If we know based on Wi-Fi access that another student wasn't in that class that day, we can exclude those from the contact tracing efforts,” Hawkins said.

She added that this information is only used to track students while they are on campus. Moore, for example, disappeared from the school’s surveillance grid briefly — when he left campus to eat lunch.

Students interviewed by NBC News had mixed feelings about the technology.

“It feels like we’re kind of being spied on,” said junior Beatrice Essel.

“If it helps us with COVID and keeps everybody safe from the harmful effects of it, then I’m all for it,” said freshman Simon Landrum.

But Oklahoma State University President Burns Hargis said the information is used for internal purposes only.

"Those that are worried about the privacy issues and the Orwellian effect of all of this really don't understand what we're using this for," he said. "We've got lots of information on everybody on our campus. But we don't distribute it. We don't share it with anybody."

He said the data was "critical" in the effort to keep the campus free of COVID-19.

Students have no ability to opt out of having their card swipes and class attendance used to track their locations, but they can turn off Wi-Fi on their phones if they don't want staff members to know their every move.