Smile! You're on Campus Camera

Colleges debate increased use of surveillance devices

While browsing at the University of Pennsylvania bookstore, a college employee noticed suspicious behavior at a nearby shelf. A tall man reached into a woman's purse without the owner noticing, then walked away.

The alert staff member quickly called the university police, where a dispatcher turned to a live view of 36th and Walnut Street, just outside the bookstore, on a security-camera monitor. The dispatcher sent an officer to the area and used remote controls to rotate the camera and zoom in to see the suspect, who noticed the responding officer approaching, placed a woman's wallet on top of a newspaper box and tried to flee. The dispatcher radioed that information to the officer.

"We were actually able to apprehend the guy a half a block away," says Maureen S. Rush, vice president for public safety at Penn. "If this guy goes to court and says, 'You've got the wrong guy,' we have the tape of the suspect."

Ms. Rush says the incident was just the latest success story for Penn's extensive network of security cameras. More than 400 surveillance cameras watch over the campus, focused on public streets, dormitory entrances, parking structures, and indoor locations such as the cashier's office. Security officers -- usually about four at a time -- are assigned to do "video patrols" of the campus, says Ms. Rush, meaning they cycle through live views from the cameras on a bank of monitors in the security control room, or at monitors on their desks, looking for signs of trouble.

The university has had security cameras for years, but it has recently installed more and increased the number of locations from which they can be monitored by officers. A growing number of colleges are setting up similar camera networks or greatly expanding existing camera systems.

On some campuses, such installations have been roundly criticized by students and professors, who argue that the cameras threaten privacy. An academic environment, some argue, should be free from monitoring devices.

"College students are at that age when they're sort of going out exploring who they are and what they want to be," says Lauren Gelman, assistant director of Stanford Law School's Center for Internet and Society. "There shouldn't be a record later in life of what is going on, and there shouldn't be a constant surveillance state on a campus."

Privacy advocates say that if cameras are installed in academic settings, officials should set up safeguards to prevent misuse of the security images and should be open about where the cameras are placed.

Some universities have resisted disclosing camera locations, however. At the University of Texas at Austin last year, officials tried to block a freedom-of-information request by a student newspaper for the locations of the campus's security cameras. University officials, who sued the state's attorney general to challenge his ruling that the university must hand over camera information, argue that details about electronic surveillance must remain secret for the system to be effective, and that security cameras on campuses are a matter of national security.

Such developments have prompted some critics to ask if Big Brother is coming to college.

"A lot of sort of science-fiction scenarios are technologically possible now," says Jay C. Stanley, communications director for the American Civil Liberties Union's Technology and Liberty Program and co-author of a recent report, "Bigger Monster, Weaker Chains: The Growth of an American Surveillance Society." Campuses cause greater privacy concerns than other locations where cameras might be installed, he says, because "there's one administration over the entire campus, so it's a natural to set up one centralized viewing room," making it possible for campus officials to secretly follow students around the campus. That concern is heightened by the extensive reach of the USA Patriot Act, he says, which could potentially be used to force campus officials to hand over data about student behavior.

Still, college officials say they hear fewer and fewer complaints about their surveillance plans. On some campuses, officials have recently been surprised to find no objections to security cameras, even when they are to be installed at the entrances to dormitories or other high-traffic locations. In fact, some officials proudly show off the cameras during campus tours, as a sign they take security seriously.

"Until about three years ago, we had clear resistance in campus environments" to the use of cameras, says Adam C. Thermos, a security consultant who works with several colleges. Now, he says, they have become an "indispensable" addition to campus security systems, especially as the equipment has gotten better, and cheaper. He says many campuses that had 10 to 20 cameras a few years ago now have 150 to 200.

H. Scott Doner, president of the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators and director of public safety at Valdosta State University, estimates that half of all American colleges have at least a few security cameras. At Valdosta State, the number has risen from about 10 three years ago to 50 today, with one camera now mounted on top of a dorm pointed at a busy quad.

Don't Peek

The debate on the role of cameras on campuses came to Pennsylvania State University at University Park this semester when local officials weighed a plan to install three security cameras on Beaver Avenue, a street near the campus where many students live. Although the university does not have jurisdiction over the area, it has pledged to pitch in up to $10,000 to install the cameras on the street, which has been the site of student riots during an annual summer arts festival, as well as fights and disturbances throughout the year.

Some 2,000 students signed a petition opposing the cameras, and about 150 students critical of the cameras attended a meeting of the local city council in April, when the issue came up for a vote. One of the leading critics was Matthew Ritsko, a junior majoring in economics who is a member of the student government. He says installing cameras near student housing is "completely and utterly wrong." For one thing, he says, the cameras are not worth the money, especially in a time of tight budgets.

But Mr. Ritsko's biggest concern is privacy. "Not only do these cameras scan the streets, but they also go into balcony areas," he says. "The cameras will pan back and forth, and as they pan they will actually look into people's living areas."

Not so, says the local police chief, Thomas R. King, who argues that student critics are misinformed about how the cameras will work. "The cameras will not be able to see anything that couldn't be seen by an officer standing on a street and looking," Mr. King says. The camera systems will even use a high-tech digital filter that will black out all windows, he says, so that it will be impossible for an officer to peer into a residence.

Mr. Ritsko replies that the filtering system would only block out glass, and so the cameras would be able to see into residences when windows are open.

The city council approved the camera plan by a 4-3 vote, and the devices are expected to be in place by August. The students have not given up on fighting the cameras, however. Mr. Ritsko and other students are hoping to get enough signatures on a petition to make security cameras an issue in the next general election, by having a referendum on whether the city council is allowed to pay for and maintain surveillance equipment.

The university already has more than 80 security cameras installed around the campus -- some in the hallways of academic buildings -- and their presence has faculty members concerned as well. In April, Penn State's Faculty Senate passed a resolution proposing limits on the kinds of spaces that can be monitored. Under the proposed rule, professors would have to grant permission before any camera could be placed in an area where they teach or study. Although the resolution notes that security cameras can have value on a campus, it argues that "video surveillance can also inhibit academic freedom when it is employed in traditionally academic spaces such as classrooms, laboratories, or designated areas for assembly." The resolution is now headed to university administrators for possible adoption as an official regulation.

Kim C. Steiner, a professor of forest biology who is the incoming chairman of the Faculty Senate, was a co-author of the resolution. "The use of security cameras is becoming more and more common," he says. "Our concern is there ought to be some space within the university that is defined as academic space -- where security cameras would be inappropriate."

Penn State's police chief, Tom Harmon, says that the faculty's suggested policy has been his department's practice all along, and that officers always ask permission of university departments or facilities' managers before installing any cameras.

Although he would not reveal specific camera locations, Mr. Harmon says most are in areas where sensitive research is under way, or in computer rooms with lots of expensive equipment. Unlike the University of Pennsylvania, Penn State does not actively monitor any of its cameras, says Mr. Harmon. Instead, the cameras record to digital storage systems, and the video is reviewed only if a crime is committed -- a common practice on many campuses.

Mr. Steiner says that unless universities agree on clear limits now, when cameras are relatively new, the electronic eyes might creep into too many locations and threaten the open environment treasured by academics.

"We felt that if we couldn't find some limits to place on security cameras at universities, then perhaps there are no limits [to their use] in society in general," says Mr. Steiner.

Tough on Crime

William G. Staples, a sociology professor at the University of Kansas and author of Everyday Surveillance: Vigilance and Visibility in Postmodern Life (Rowman & Littlefield), says security cameras can seem contradictory to the romanticized notion of a campus as a safe space.

"The move to putting more cameras on campus may be perceived as a violation of the notion of a community on campus -- a collective identity that suggests that we take care of each other and we don't need those things," he says.

But security officials say that the unique nature of college campuses makes it all the more necessary to install cameras, to preserve the sheltered environment that students have come to expect.

From a criminal's perspective, students are "soft targets," according to Alan J. Levy, director of housing public affairs at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. Many students don't bother to lock their doors. They often prop open building doors for their friends or for the pizza-delivery guy, making it easy for thieves to enter. And students often let in strangers as they enter a building because they are too embarrassed to turn away such "tailgaters," as campus safety officials call them.

At the Rhode Island School of Design, a series of break-ins last summer, in which someone posing as the friend of a student snuck into dormitories and took valuables from unlocked rooms, led the campus to install video cameras at every entrance to the freshmen dorms. One of the few violations the devices have witnessed so far was a student affixing a drawing of a penis in front of a camera as a joke. (Camera images were used to catch the offending student, who was given a warning for tampering with security equipment.)

At the design school, as at many colleges, the cameras are just one part of a system that includes electronic locks on building and room doors. Electronic locks are activated by cards with magnetic strips or radio antennas rather than traditional keys. Such electronic keys are thought to be more secure than metal keys because they are more difficult to copy, and because a central computer can revoke access to any user's card if the card is lost or stolen. It is relatively cheap and easy for a college that is installing such a system to add cameras at entryways as well, since the cameras can piggyback on the same computer networks to communicate with central monitoring stations. The key systems record every person who activates the locks, but the cameras offer a way to find out if tailgaters entered as well.

The cameras themselves have fallen drastically in price over the past few years. Mr. Thermos, the security consultant, says that color security cameras that would have cost $1,000 three years ago now run about $300. For the design college, the camera system cost about $8,000 -- pocket change compared with the $300,000 price tag for the electronic key system.

"It just adds another layer of security," says Raymond C. McKearney, director of public safety at the college.

Few Complaints

While officials at the Rhode Island School of Design and some other universities braced themselves for student objections to the cameras, surprisingly, none surfaced.

"I think it's a generational issue," says Brian A. Janes, director of residence life at the design college. "It's an issue for the older generation instead of the students," who are used to security devices in high schools, shopping malls, and other public locations. Mr. Janes says that campus tour guides now show off the cameras to parents and prospective students.

"I don't mind," says Cathy Ng, a first-year student. "I think it's really normal nowadays."

A similar installation of cameras at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor has also met no student opposition, according to campus officials, though some students have complained about the cost of security enhancements. The university is in the process of installing cameras at every entrance to its 16 dormitories, as part of a $4-million upgrade to its electronic key system.

In the end, the dorms will have about 200 cameras, at the cost of about $350,000, says Mr. Levy, of Michigan's housing department. The security upgrades were prompted by a rash of break-ins and Peeping Tom incidents last fall, says Mr. Levy.

The cameras are "not on residential corridors, and they're not near private areas or bathrooms," says Mr. Levy. "We tried to be as sensitive as possible to privacy concerns. We want to avoid any remote perception of any kind of Big-Brother thing."

Some Objections

At Brown University, students have not complained about the cameras that watch over areas such as the basement of a student center. But students did object to a proposal to place cameras facing the main green of campus -- to help manage crowds during commencement and other major events -- says David Cardoza, card-access manager for the university's security department.

Some students at other campuses have complained about cameras as well, however, especially when college officials are secretive about them.

Last October, editors of The Daily Texan, a student newspaper at UT Austin, used the state's Public Information Act to request details about security cameras on the campus from university administrators. But officials refused, and sued the state's attorney general, Greg Abbott, to block the students' request. In February, a state judge threw out the university's lawsuit, but the university has appealed that decision.

"Students have a right to know when they're being filmed and if they're being filmed," says P. Ryan Petkoff, managing editor of The Daily Texan.

Patricia Ohlendorf, Austin's vice president for institutional relations and legal affairs, says the university feels that keeping camera information secret "helps us to have a greater degree of confidence in securing the campus." She refuses to say how many cameras are on the campus, but says, "It's not a significant number."

"We have a fairly small police force, and they're not able to [fully] patrol and monitor the campus in person," says Ms. Ohlendorf. "Being able to use security devices ... assists their efforts."

But the cameras are not always effective. Campus police at Austin admitted that a recording device for one of its cameras malfunctioned on the night when a statue of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was vandalized -- and therefore the cameras were no help in solving the crime, according to a report in The Daily Texan.

Meanwhile, the University of Pennsylvania goes out of its way to identify its cameras, by placing signs by each camera and publishing the locations of cameras. The university's philosophy: The cameras might deter criminals from coming to the campus in the first place. Ms. Rush, the Penn vice president, says the combination of man and machine in policing has led to a 32-percent decrease in overall crime from 1996, when cameras were first installed, to 2002.

She expects the presence of cameras on campuses to continue to increase. "The bottom line is that cameras are everywhere -- they're in every bank, every ATM, every drugstore, every K-Mart, everywhere," she says. "The world doesn't have an expectation of privacy when you're out in public."

(By Jeffrey R. Young, and published in 13 June 2003 issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education, Volume 49, Issue 40, Page A36.)

Contact the New York Surveillance Camera Players

By e-mail

By snail mail: SCP c/o NOT BORED! POB 1115, Stuyvesant Station, New York City 10009-9998