Edition 2 2021

UniWireless COVID Data Sharing Raises Privacy Concerns

26 April 2021

This year, when students at the University of Melbourne attempt to log into the University’s Wi-Fi, many may need to repeatedly reconnect to the network. This is because several changes have been made to the terms of use for UniWireless in light of COVID-19.

According to the University’s website, “provisions” will be made for the Victorian Government’s contact tracing programme, meaning that information collected from the use of UniWireless (such as account usernames, IP addresses, MAC addresses from devices, details of network activity and connection to UniWireless access points) will be shared with “relevant Government Departments or agencies to meet mandatory reporting obligations relating to public health”. The terms of use for UniWireless were updated in December 2020, said a spokesperson for the University. Following this update, students will be informed of the changes when they log into the network.

Professor of Electrical and Electronic Engineering, Ampalavanapillai Nirmalathas, said that data collected as students log into UniWireless is normally used to determine how to best provide services for students, and to detect whether anyone is violating the terms of use while using UniWireless. In accordance with the privacy law of Victoria, this data should not be shared outside of the University.

However, due to COVID-19, exceptions were made to allow the University to share student data in certain circumstances. For example, if a case of COVID-19 occurred on campus, the University is required to provide other universities with relevant student data.

“The University may be asked to share the specific amount of people in the vicinity of that particular place, or the faculty someone might have been to, and they may be forced to share that information by the state government,” said Professor Nirmalathas.

The same University spokesperson also commented on the use of the data saying, “UniWireless information may be used to supplement primary campus attendance records such as the timetable and QR check-in records to aid in the assessment of potential contacts of a COVID-19 case on campus.”

The University has deemed these changes necessary, stating they will reduce “the risk to UniWireless user’s health, the health of their family and the health of the university community in relation to COVID-19,” the spokesperson said. These changes will also enable the University to meet public health obligations.

Many students, however, were unaware of these changes in the first place. 

When asked about them, students displayed distinctly mixed results. Christina Yuan, a Psychology student at the University, said that reconnecting to the Wi-Fi might bring a little hassle, but that it is “normal procedure” and “sounds reasonable”. 

Other students, however, found these changes concerning. Emily Gu, a Media and Communications major, said, “It feels like the University is breaching the privacy of students and staff by collecting this personal data. Although we could technically opt out, most of us have no choice but to use the University’s wi-fi and therefore have our data mined.”

Noting the possibility of data breaches, Emily also stated that “the Australian government has an extensive history of data breaches and marginalised students have a much larger risk of being surveyed anyway. I don’t think it is necessary for the University to share personal data with the government because it will put these students at further risk.”

She added: “I think I might change how I engage with [the wi-fi], maybe only connecting with University wi-fi when I really need to like in class or when studying, but then otherwise turning it off.”

Unlike Emily, Christina said that she would continue using UniWireless when she returned to campus. “My experience with campus wi-fi has been pretty good so far.”

Professor Nirmalathas said that the data collected would make a “big difference” in managing the COVID-19 pandemic. As such, he has made the decision to continue using the campus wi-fi. “I am making the decision with the knowledge that yes, there is some data about me being collected, but I believe that [the University] will carefully use the information. I am confident that it will not be misused.”

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