Using video surveillance on college campuses

Answers to common questions about putting digital eyes on campus


In the aftermath of the Virginia Tech shootings, college campuses struggle to design the perfect mix of technology, systems, and software to protect students, faculty, and staff members. Many questions swirl around these technology discussions as administrators and campus security folks consider privacy, integration, budget, and the latest up-and-coming technology around video surveillance. How can campuses make sense of all this information? The following frequently asked questions will help administrators determine whether this technology can benefit their campus and how to ensure its success.

How do you handle the needs between privacy and security for students on a college campus?

When weighing privacy and security on a college campus, the goal is to provide both in the least intrusive way possible, says Chris Bailey, director of campus support services (which oversees the campus safety office) at Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre, Pa.

"Unlike fire alarms or sprinklers, there is no code for camera coverage," Bailey says. "After 9/11, concern for privacy has not been an issue at Wilkes. This may mean that people are not as concerned as they used to be, or that we're not pushing the envelope."

The greater good for cameras, Bailey says, is to act as the deterrent. Small universities cannot devote staff time to monitor cameras and actively catch a crime in progress. Instead, cameras are used as an investigative tool after the fact. Wilkes University will soon deploy more than 50 Axis cameras in public areas in a recently renovated residence hall to deter crime.

Assistant Professor Marc Blitz at Oklahoma City University School of Law believes schools, law enforcement agents, and others should avoid assuming that privacy and security are always at odds. There are often ways to enhance security without making a massive sacrifice in privacy, he says. Blitz follows the advice of Harvard law professor William Stuntz, who advocates allowing government greater powers of surveillance and investigation but limiting how that information is used.

"I've tried to adapt this advice to govern the use of video surveillance, and it might well have a place in thinking more carefully about campus security," Blitz says.

Every government entity has privacy concerns as they look at video surveillance, Drummond says, and they all balance them differently. Some believe that if a building is public, they have the right to put cameras anywhere. Other institutions will place video cameras only in an area that's definitely considered a public area, such as a cafeteria or registration area.

"In today's age, security trumps privacy and most will default to trying to be safer and more secure and just deal with issues that come up relating to privacy," says Keith Drummond, CEO of Houston-based LenSec, a provider of IP-based video surveillance solutions.

Many people believe that privacy is a big issue for students, says Chief Michael McNair, director of public safety at American University (D.C.) Yet their participation in sites such as Facebook, MySpace, and YouTube indicate otherwise.

"If you look at those sites, you will see that students are not camera shy or concerned about privacy at all," McNair states. "They accept video surveillance as a fact of everyday life."

At American U, video surveillance is used only in public places where there is no legal expectation of privacy--never in bathrooms or student rooms. In the wake of 9/11 and Virginia Tech-type events, students, staff, and faculty understand that they have to give up some privacy rights to have a safer and more secure campus. The university even deploys students as camera monitors so they are participating in the process.

North Harris Montgomery Community College District (Texas) handles its video surveillance in an obvious way for its five campuses around Houston--making signs and cameras visible in public areas such as parking lots, some hallways, and money exchange areas.

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