Using video surveillance on college campuses

Answers to common questions about putting digital eyes on campus


Longwood University (Va.), on the other hand, did have a problem with students propping open resident hall doors after its card access system was added about seven years ago. It ultimately added a horn that sounds when the door is propped open more than a few seconds. Within two weeks, it was no longer a problem, says Frank Moore, vice president, Information Technology, and CIO.

"The horn will go off and wake up the entire resident hall," Moore states. "That put that problem to bed."

Moore attended the Virginia Governor's Conference on Campus Security in July 2007. It proved valuable for his institution because it validated they were making the right security decisions.

What are the benefits of adding video analytics to my existing security operations?

Although video analytics have been around since the mid-1990s, Craig Chambers, CEO at Cernium, a developer of real-time video behavior recognition software, says it's a technology that has really evolved over the last decade. Video analytics significantly improve the ability to pick up and observe specific activity or people in multiple cameras.

"The camera is doing most of the looking around in a way that doesn't intrude on privacy," Chambers says.

He tends to see colleges and universities making small camera installations to start (20 to 30 cameras) in the areas of greatest concern. Staff members learn how to use the system and scale it up over time. One of Cernium's customers, Johns Hopkins University (Md.), started its transition with less than 30 cameras. It now operates up to 200 cameras around campus that are tied to a mobile officer force around campus.

"With its immediate communication capabilities, Johns Hopkins uses it as a real-time crime deterrent," Chambers states. "The cameras act as 24/7 eyes for the video surveillance system."

For schools with large camera infrastructures, Johnston says, it is difficult for the public safety staff to monitor live video feeds from all across campus. Video analytics reduces the amount of video presented to security personnel by automatically delivering only those images that generate an alert due to a potential security concern.

"Security personnel can set parameters for the surveillance system to raise an alarm to the system operator when it detects suspicious patterns of behavior," Johnston says. Systems can be programmed to trigger alarms based on object size, loitering, or the removal of objects from a scene.

What is the greatest challenge of using a video surveillance system on a college campus?

McNair believes the greatest challenge is cost. Part of this challenge is selling the system to administrators and convincing them to spend scarce resource dollars on more cameras.

"A good way to do that is to use monitoring to catch criminals in the act or document an activity that saves the university from a lawsuit," McNair relates. "Another way to convince them they should spend the money is to show how much university property is stolen or damaged during a school year."

How will video surveillance technology evolve?

Video networks are sensitive to transmission delays, unlike e-mail traffic, but Wi-Fi standards have evolved to handle this with the 802.11e technology, according to Chip Yager, director of operations in Motorola's mesh network group. Advancements are also evident in the video management applications, where sophisticated video analysis tools can automatically alert security personnel if a package is left behind or if someone enters an off-limits area.

"We're seeing an increasing interest in using wireless networks to carry video signals throughout campus environments," Yager states. "College campuses are already equipped with many indoor Wi-Fi networks, so these same types of networks moved outdoors and married to digital cameras offer fast and inexpensive deployment of security cameras wherever they're needed."

Some schools, such as Virginia Commonwealth University, can monitor fixed cameras from mobile vehicles so that they can arrive on the scene with full knowledge of an incident.

Universities are also interested in integrating video surveillance with other applications on an IP network, such as building access controls and campus cards, says LenSec's Drummond. K-12 actually leads the way in this area, and universities are now following suit. If a student comes in after hours to a residence hall, for example, it will trigger an alarm and capture live video of the person for a real-time view.