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More cameras: privacy invasions or crime stoppers?

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University police say that the recent installation of more cameras will help to catch crooks – but some experts and students are concerned for a “chilling effect” on student behavior and invasions of privacy.

For the past decade, the university police, citing improved security and safety, have been installing new cameras each year to public spaces, such as of residential buildings and the campus center. So far, police have installed 338 cameras in the uptown and downtown campus, with plans to add more.

“The camera system has proven to be very effective in aiding our criminal investigations and helped us solve numerous crimes which have allowed us to recover stolen property for victims,” said Paul Burlingame, UPD’s Deputy Chief of Police.

But, some surveillance and privacy experts say that while cameras may improve security, the presence of “Big Brother” raises other issues that can impact, in particular, student lives on a college campus.

“My general concern is the idea that if your feel like you’re being watched, your behavior becomes inhibited,” said Christopher Slobogin, the director of the Justice Program at Vanderbilt University.

“Innocent behavior tends to become chilled, especially for people under the age of 25 that tend to be sillier and a bit more rambunctious. For that reason, I imagine it has a little more effect on college campuses, due to a fear that even innocent actions may be construed as something else.”

Rachel Levinson-Waldman, the Senior Counsel for Liberty and National Security at NYU School of Law, said cameras also open up the possibility of abuse by authorities that could infringe on a student’s First Amendment rights. 

 Surveillance footage could be used to watch and subsequently target students engaged in lawful activities, such as protests or political sit-ins.

“I feel really uncomfortable with cameras in the residential halls, especially those in the elevators,” Said Shanelle Webster, a sophomore who lives on Dutch Quad.

“We walk around in PJs, sometimes girls don’t even wear bras, but with cameras around its feels like we can’t do that with comfort anymore.”

Other experts question the effectiveness of cameras to actual help combat crime.

“Research has shown that cameras can displace crimes, meaning criminals will just go and commit a crime elsewhere, which if you have them all over the campus might mean that the areas around campus may experience an increase in crime,” said Christopher Slobogin, director of Vanderbilt Law School’s Criminal Justice Program, said.

Burlingame, however, disagrees. “Our use of cameras has certainly increased the risk of being caught,” Burlingame said.

Slobogin added that enhanced camera capacities, such as the capacity for zoom and night vision also increase the risk of possible abuses. Burlingame said those issues are not relevant for the Albany campus.

“A few of the exterior cameras have zoom capabilities, and they were installed because of the large area that camera is designed to cover,” Burlingame said, ‘Our interior cameras do not have that capability. Most of the cameras can operate in low light, comparable to what people are able to see.”

Both Slobogin and Levinson-Waldman suggested more community involvement in the process of increasing surveillance systems.

Examples of community involvement would be taking suggestions from students of where they would like to see more cameras, as well as specific capacities, such zoom and night vision, that would make them uncomfortable.

Dutch quad resident Shanelle Webster said she felt caught off guard by new cameras being put in, like one day [last year?] when she stepped into the elevator and noticed a camera staring back at her.

“I don’t feel like I was properly informed. I didn’t get any email that mentioned that they were even considering implementing more cameras in the towers,” she said. “I wish they would have informed us on why they were added and when they would be so I would feel more comfortable.

Burlingame said that while there is a strict prohibition on accessing footage for any reason other than legitimate purposes, there isn’t a restriction on reviewing video alone. However all usage is tracked, and a log is maintained, and there has never been a circumstance where a user was found to be accessing footage for illegitimate purposes.

“Only authorized users have access to footage, and only specific authorized users can ‘save’ video. Video can only be watched or released for specific purposes, like criminal prosecution or an administrative hearing,” Burlingame said. “All releases must be for legitimate purposes and authorized by the Chief of Police.”

Michelle Mullen is a staff writer for the Albany Student Press.

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