Big Brother or Guardian Angel?

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February 13, 2014

UBC law prof Benjamin Goold outlines the strengths and pitfalls of using closed circuit cameras to ensure community security on campus. Photo: Martin Dee

The series of sexual assaults that occurred on the UBC Vancouver Point Grey campus in 2013 has raised a number of questions around how best to ensure community security. Proponents of electronic surveillance have said it is high time closed circuit cameras are installed on the UBC Vancouver campus, but some community members are objecting to the potential intrusion into their privacy.

A community dialogue on limited use of CCTV cameras to enhance campus safety is part of the recommendations put forward for community feedback by the UBC Point Grey Campus Safety Working Group.

One of its members is UBC law professor Benjamin Goold, who specializes in policing, privacy rights and the use of surveillance technologies. Professor Goold outlines here the complex issues it raises as well as its strengths and pitfalls.

How effective is electronic surveillance in enhancing community security?  

Determining the effectiveness of different types of electronic surveillance, such as closed circuit surveillance cameras, is very difficult.  So much depends on the context in which the surveillance takes place, how the technology is used, and how it interacts with other efforts at enhancing community safety.  What we do know is that although closed circuit television cameras can be a powerful tool, they are not a “magic bullet” solution to problems of crime and community safety.  For example, cameras appear to be effective in reducing certain types of property crime, such as vehicle theft. But there is little evidence to suggest that they deter or prevent other forms of crime, or that they necessarily make people safer.  Cameras may, however, be helpful when it comes to the investigation of and prosecution of crime. For example, security staff and police investigators often find it extremely helpful to review surveillance footage in order to better understand past events and accurately identify potential suspects.

What are the major concerns over the use of electronic surveillance, besides the intrusion of privacy?

One concern is sometimes referred to as “function creep.” Often we find that cameras that were originally installed for one purpose, such as preventing crime or improving public safety, end up being used for some other, unrelated purpose such as monitoring traffic or preventing illegal parking.  Another concern is that cameras may lull people into a false sense of security.  Being watched by a camera isn’t a guarantee of safety, and sometimes the presence of electronic surveillance can actually lead people to be less vigilant about their own safety and the safety of those around them.

How do you respond to those who dismiss the privacy concerns on the grounds that public spaces are, by definition, not private?

It is important to recognize that even in public places like streets and parks, we still have expectations of privacy, even though they are different from the expectations we might have in our own homes or backyards.  Most of us would feel quite uncomfortable if someone were to sit next to us on a bus and start reading our book or newspaper over our shoulder, and even more unhappy if they follow us around after getting off the bus.  Although we all accept that public spaces are not private, we simply don’t surrender all of our expectations of privacy when we leave our homes.  It’s also important to remember that our expectations may change depending on who is doing the watching, and why they are doing it.  There is a big difference between being casually watched by passersby when you are out in public, and being routinely watched – and possibly recorded – by the police, your employer, or even your university.

What other factors need to be weighed before deciding to install electronic surveillance?

For me, the first question is always ‘what are the cameras for’? If the aim is to prevent crime and enhance community safety, then it is important to recognize that cameras alone are unlikely to achieve this.  Another factor is cost.  Even relatively limited camera systems can be expensive to install and maintain. So if your aim is to make people safer, then it is important to ask whether it would be better, for example, to employ more security staff, improve public lighting, or provide more night buses.  Finally, it is essential to recognize that the success of any camera system will depend on all sorts of factors that have little to do with the cameras themselves, such as the environment in which they are used, the staff responsible for monitoring and maintaining them, and the way in which people being watched respond to them. Unless the cameras are closely monitored in real time, it is unlikely that security personnel can intervene to stop a crime being committed.

Why does this kind of issue seem particularly sensitive for an academic community to address?

I think the key word here is community.  Unlike sports stadiums, banks or shopping malls, university campuses are typically used for a whole range of activities.  As a result, it is important to think about the effect that installing cameras might have on the people who study, work, and live in that space.  Are students likely to feel comfortable holding events on campus if they know cameras are monitoring them?  How will administrative and academic staff feel knowing that they are being caught on camera coming to and from work?  Will the presence of cameras make public spaces on campus more or less inviting?  While it is vital for people to feel safe and secure, it is also important that people should not feel that their activities are subject to constant surveillance and monitoring.  Overly intrusive surveillance could easily endanger many of the qualities that make an academic community special – such as openness, diversity, creativity and a commitment to the free exchange of ideas.  On the other hand, too little safety could affect the ability of the community to study, research and enjoy life on campus.  Clearly, what we seek is just the right balance – and that requires careful thought, consultation, and a willingness to look at a whole host of safety measures in addition to cameras.

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