In a Sept. 20 email to the Undergraduate Residential Center Building D residents, the Offices of Residence Life and Housing Operations and Student Health Services quietly acknowledged that the University has been testing wastewater from student-occupied apartments for COVID-19. Such behavior is a reprehensible and blatant violation of our right to individual privacy. Emory must immediately cease this operation and disclose all other forms of clandestine surveillance of its students, COVID-19 related or otherwise.
As the Sept. 20 email states, “In addition to the weekly COVID-19 testing of individual students, [Emory has] also been conducting routine supplemental tests of wastewater from the residence halls on campus.” As the Wheel recently reported, this testing has been happening “for several weeks.” Yet the University failed to adequately communicate this information to students prior to or upon their arrival in August, and many students remain uninformed.
Students should expect the same privacy regarding their waste as their personal online activity. Those against privacy often contend that those with nothing to hide have nothing to fear. Yet this argument conflates privacy and secrecy. It assumes that every interaction and behavior should be subject to institutional scrutiny. Would you want someone watching you as you speak with your parents or friends on the phone? If you’re like me, the answer is no. Why should your sewage be any different? While it is true some U.S. cities test sewage for illegal drugs, this practice isn’t widespread, and nor should it be. Privacy is not about hiding from authority; it is about independence and not having to justify yourself unnecessarily. Privacy is not a malleable concept that can be bent to serve a vague goal of public health, even if its violation in the past has proven to be beneficial.
In his first few months, President Gregory L. Fenves has tried to maintain open and frequent communication with the student body. He has hosted town halls, attended virtual student programming and even made surprise appearances on campus. However, his administration’s flagrant disregard for students’ privacy contradicts and nullifies that positive trend. The Office of the President’s website states as a guiding principle for COVID-19 policy: “We will communicate the basis and rationale for decisions to our community.” So much for that.
We have a duty as members of the Emory community to hold Fenves and his team accountable for failing to meet their own standards.
Contrary to the University’s paternalistic, authoritarian mentality regarding COVID-19, students are perfectly capable of determining their personal risk and acting accordingly. Most students are at extraordinarily low risk: the disease is associated with only 1.6% of the nearly 21,000 total U.S. deaths in the student-age population since February. Given that students should have limited contact with vulnerable populations on campus (students and staff who are at high risk from COVID-19 ought to be practicing safer behavior at home right now), Emory’s surveillance of our wastewater is a grotesque, unwarranted invasion of privacy.
As students living in America (and, more broadly, as humans), we have a natural right to privacy and a mandate of personal responsibility in our lives, even if that privacy can be misused. We don’t need or want an Orwellian institution watching our every flush. Fenves must publicly apologize for allowing this abhorrent invasion of privacy, disclose any other covert surveillance of students and commit to open communication moving forward.
Patrick Czabala (23C) is from Roswell, Georgia.