Security Cameras Watch Campus

But students not the focus of 200 outside surveillance cameras, University says

Students who clandestinely urinate on the John Harvard Statue after a late night may be left the next morning with only a hazy memory of the deed—but they should not think it necessarily went unrecorded.

Harvard is home to about 200 security cameras stationed outside, across the University’s various schools, according to Harvard University Police Department (HUPD) spokesman Steven G. Catalano. The University is private about its security practices, so the locations of the cameras are unclear. Requests for specific information were denied by Catalano, Director of Building Maintenance and Operations Jay M. Phillips, and Rob Taylor, the AlliedBarton official overseeing the security firm’s employees at Harvard.

Although each school sets up its own surveillance system monitored by its security personnel, AlliedBarton officers are not the only ones privy to a showing. If granted access by the schools, HUPD officers are allowed to view the footage, said Catalano.

And although some activists decry campus cameras for potentially leading to voyeuristic abuse, administrators and HUPD say the cameras are effective for catching campus criminals—and not meant for monitoring students. In fact, the secretary of the Administrative Board, John L. Ellison, said it has never used security-camera information against a student.

However, he wrote in an e-mail that “if there was a case where the security cameras offered us information, we would take it.”

Catalano stresses that the cameras do not violate students’ privacy. “They’re very visible cameras,” he said. “I don’t want the impression that Big Brother is watching. We’re not creeping in people’s dorm rooms.”

But some students say they’ve never heard of—or seen—surveillance cameras in the Yard. Undergraduate Council President John S. Haddock ’07 wrote in an e-mail that he has never seen one of these cameras and called on the University to greater publicize their existence, locations, and purpose.

“It seems strange we’d have so many and yet have no sense of why they are there or how many there are,” he wrote. “If this is a recent development of campus enforcement, then I think they owe it to students to say where they are and why.”



YOU’RE ON CANDID CAMERA

At the HUPD headquarters’ dispatch center at 1033 Mass. Ave. on a spring afternoon, one small television screen goes mostly unnoticed by the dispatcher, who sits, waiting for a 9-1-1 call. The screen, split in four, is showing live footage of four familiar campus locales. The first shows students walking outside the Science Center, the second shows the outside of Au Bon Pain, the third inside Holyoke Center, and the fourth shows the outside of a University animal facility.

Officers can change the video feeds to monitor campus hot spots. This particular week in April is World Laboratory Animal Liberation Week, so Catalano said HUPD has focused on the animal facility, in case activists incite a protest.

He adds that these security cameras are not regularly watched by an officer and are usually only used to observe, for example, a big rally or to review taped material in order to identify a thief.

“We’re not looking at the security cameras 24/7,” he said.

The security cameras help to retroactively identify a crime’s perpetrator. He recalls a string of projector thefts at the Kennedy School of Government in March 2003 when the thief, a repeat offender, was caught on camera coming out of a classroom with a liquid crystal display projector. The next day, HUPD obtained a warrant for the perpetrator’s arrest.

The campus thieves caught on camera are usually not students but “known offenders who specialize in crime on campus,” Catalano said.

THE LAW’S ON THEIR SIDE

Harvey Burstein, a professor of security at the Northeastern University College of Criminal Jusice, wrote in an e-mail that the security cameras may or may not be viable in court. “A lot would depend upon their authentication and what they might contribute of value,” he wrote. “The rule of thumb for the admissibility of evidence is that it must be lawfully obtained, relevant and material.”

According to Sarah R. Wunsch, attorney of the American Civil Liberties Union for Massachusetts, these security cameras are not illegal.

“The basic rule is they shouldn’t have surveillance cameras in places where people have a reasonable expectation of privacy such as bathrooms and locker rooms,” she said. “Harvard is on its own property outside, so Harvard probably has the right to have surveillance cameras outside.”

However, Wunsch says that the security cameras probably don’t help prevent crime.

“Studies seem to show that cameras don’t prevent crime as well as good lighting, good community policing, and neighborhood watch,” she said. “When cameras are monitored by police officers, they got bored, so they started zooming in on women’s body parts and making racial epithets.”

Burtstein urges cops generally not to be overly reliant on surveillance cameras.

“I’m still old fashioned,” he said. “I still like to see campus police officers spend more time on foot, where they get to spend more time on campus. If you’ve got that many cameras, how many people do you need to monitor them? Suppose we had fewer cameras but more people out on the street.”

Still, Burstein says that security cameras outside are a “fairly common practice” at colleges. Yale University, for example, uses close circuit television monitoring as well, and “security systems are monitored 24 hours a day, 7 days a week by the Yale University Security Central,” according to Yale’s website.

THE NAKED TRUTH

Effective or not, the surveillance cameras have probably recorded amusing events over the years. Justin A. Morgan ’09, who was running Primal Scream on Wednesday, said that he didn’t care that his dash in the buff was potentially being recorded by security cameras. “They can laugh all they want,” he said.

Matan Shelomi ’09, who was also baring all Wednesday night, said that during Primal Scream, “it’s common sense that they should turn the security cameras off.”

—Staff writer Anna L. Tong can be reached at tong@fas.harvard.edu.