A surveillance camera outside Chemistry. It is estimated that there are in the range of 150-200 such installations inside ring road.
The ubiquity of surveillance cameras in our society is not a recent development. The basic idea of surveillance has been with us for ages. Humans created the omnipotent God as a means of control over their peers. Parents readily lie to their children about Santa and his all seeing eye. In modern times we no longer have to rely on myths. George Orwell warned us about the potential for abuse of surveillance. The term "Big Brother", as campy as it has become, accurately summarizes his argument. This article hopes to address the proliferation and administration of surveillance cameras on the University of Waterloo campus.
The debate about privacy vs. surveillance cameras is a long one. We will not be spending any time on this debate. Save for the possibility of extremists, both sides of the discussion will agree that there are situations where security cameras are acceptable. This raises the question, what criteria does our school use to determine if a particular installation is justified? If you went to check the Secretariat for relevant policy you would come back empty handed. The closest thing to policy is a set of guidelines hosted by IST.1 Questions such as "Who has access to footage?", "How long is data stored?" are left to a very vague article hosted on an internal wiki page.
We at The Chevron contacted Dan Anderson, Director of Police Services for more information. He estimates that the number of cameras currently installed on campus is between 150 and 200. He informs us that the current procedure is to restrict footage access to police services, with the exception of the PAC which has live feeds of cameras but no rewind ability. The cameras at police services are not monitored live; they are for investigative purposes. There is currently no limit other than that imposed by storage requirements on how long footage is kept for.
When a group requests a security camera they first contact IST. Once the financial details have been sorted the case is referred to police services. They conduct a sanity check on the situation (e.g. no cameras in bathrooms) and evaluate the legitimacy of the request on a case by case basis. A senior staff member at UW who wishes to remain anonymous informs us that, however, the status quo is to "[allow] just about everything".
The staff member tells us that he has heard of at least one case of abuse: allegedly a male staff member was caught using the cameras to stalk a female staff member. To the best of our informants knowledge the offender received a reprimand and had his access revoked. The incident appears to have gone unreported, and The Chevron has been unable to verify it in time for print. Regardless, the situation is not at all unbelievable. It is disconcerting to think that without any formal policy this type of abuse could be near impossible to detect. One simply needs to imagine themselves in the position of having access to footage of campus to realize how strong the temptation to peak would be.
There is a yet more striking consequence that lack of policy has. What happens when a group either doesn't know about the current procedure with IST and police services or would rather do it themselves? This is not a hypothetical situation. One of the examples we investigated was the Mathematics Society. They recently suffered a theft and in reaction have installed a camera in their public office, one in their executive office and have plans to expand to their C&D. This was was allegedly done by the suggestion of police services, but there are inconsistencies. Reports indicate that the system was physically installed by two of the students over a weekend without notifying Plant-ops (a violation of policy 22.) More suspiciously we have learned that the digital video recording device is stored in the MathSoc executive office under the control of the students. It is the opinion of the staff at The Chevron that this represents a very severe privacy violation. Regardless of their intentions it is unreasonable to have security footage in the hands of students. The potential for abuse is far too high.
We do not object to security cameras as a general principle. Dan told us that he "[has] never been a strong believer that cameras are a deterrent", but that "they have been a terrific investigative tool." Ideally, an independent advisory board consisting of faculty, staff and students would review cases on an individual basis. After we contacted the Secretariat they got in touch with police services regarding the lack of policy. There is no indication that the university does not want to do the work on this, we just need to let them know it is important to us. We ask that you contact members of the Secretariat2 and FedS3 to share your feelings.
A camera in the SLC watches the crowds as rain falls outside.
by Winston Smith
1 The IST guidelines can be viewed here.
2 Contact information for the Secretariat can be found here.
3 Contact information for FedS can be found here.