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Privacy & Data

Syracuse University Orange to Crush Student Privacy Rights

Recently Syracuse University, my alma mater, took steps to increase campus security by installing a video-surveillance system in all entrances and exits of residence halls and one academic building. This took two years of planning for the 168 new cameras being installed on campus, but it is unclear how the University is ensuring the privacy of students as they begin to monitor the campus over video. When implementing a video surveillance system of this scale, people often forget that it’s not just the “bad guys” and criminals that end up on the tape, it’s every person walking through the building. Every day, these tapes will archive the movements of thousands of students, faculty and staff members at the university, most of which will never be involved in a crime.

Students may worry that “big brother” is watching them even as they go about the mundane details of their day, moving in and out of their buildings, but they should also be aware of data retention issues associated with this system and demand answers and that appropriate privacy policies be put in place. Before they are surveilled, students need to know how long the tapes are kept if no crime is involved, what steps are taken to prevent theft of the footage, and who has access to the footage for what purposes. Will the footage be used only for criminal investigations, or will the scope of the project creep as new groups want to use it? The issues surrounding the surveillance project become less about whether or not students are safer on campus and more about students taking back the right to their privacy by being able to protect themselves and their identities from unwarranted third party involvement. The more hands a student’s information or image passes through, the more this project grows in scope.

With the allure of all of this information, suddenly it’s not just public safety viewing the images, it’s also the health office or the student judiciary office or the scholarship office. Without clear guidelines noting who can or cannot access these videos, students have essentially given the school a blank check on their privacy rights – with no limit on who can access their information. That is what is especially troubling about this new system – the University’s failure to make clear the privacy protections and data retention policies being discussed and put in place at the beginning of this project to ensure that the rights of students aren’t being compromised at the expense of new safety measures.

The system is being monitored and installed by the Department of Public Safety but the agency’s website makes no mention of any privacy protections being put in place for the new monitoring project. In the wake of the murder of Yale student Annie Le and the subsequent arrest of a lab technician (who some claim was apprehended through the use of video surveillance tapes), it is unfair to say that the installation of video cameras in Syracuse residence halls is an entirely detrimental idea. But these cameras are only being installed in residence halls, which are well-lit, well-populated areas that include staff working at the front desk 24/7. Cameras in residence hall entrances would not help determine who assaulted a woman outside of a fraternity house (not a University residence hall, so not part of this surveillance system). Cameras are not being installed in parking lots, outdoor walkways or areas of campus where arguably a crime is more likely to occur. Though in their defense, DPS has said there are “plans” to eventually put additional cameras in other parts of campus, but why residence halls were chosen first is beyond me.

Organizations like the ACLU have done studies on the effectiveness of video surveillance in solving crimes and internal statistics for London’s police force show that there is little to no value in these systems in preventing or solving crimes. The cameras monitoring SU’s residence halls are more likely to capture footage of students carrying groceries into their building or running off to class then capturing a crime on film. Cameras in off-campus locations where students find less people and encounter more dangerous situations would be more useful than footage of what type of beer Brian on the 7th floor brought into his dorm. While it is important to take steps to make colleges safe for all students, steps must be taken to make sure students are aware of the infrastructures being put in place and not have to worry about their privacy, their data, or their identities being compromised at the expense of “feeling more secure.”