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Smile! You’re on camera: Carleton’s video surveillance jeopardizes trust, community and student privacy

When I first toured Carleton’s campus as a prospective student, I was told that Carleton was special because of the tight-knit community and deep levels of trust maintained across the campus. This promise carried serious weight as I considered attending Carleton — I was impressed by the unattended laptops and unlocked bikes. This was a message emphasized over and over again by the Admissions Office, through Carleton media advertising and in materials sent out to students considering Carleton. But when I finally arrived on campus my freshman fall, I was surprised and frustrated by the harsh reality — Carleton has been structured to watch, track and catch students at every opportunity. Truly, Carleton Security is bent on watching you. 

Simply walking around campus, I was able to find 175 security cameras scattered across every corner of Carleton, making sure that you are on camera all hours of the day. Simply walk into Sayles, and the sheer quantity of security cameras immediately in view makes it apparent that the Carleton administration does not trust you. Whether you are picking out a book in the bookstore, getting a workout in at the Rec Center or walking to class in the basement of Laird, you are just another suspicious figure in the security record. 

In fact, it is hard to walk anywhere on campus without being captured on surveillance footage: cameras monitor the entrance and exit of most buildings, recent additions onto the campus blue-light poles capture everything in and around a 60-75 foot radius and cameras fill high-traffic student areas around the Complex, Anderson, Weitz, Rec Center and Gould Library. Especially in the Complex and Weitz, camera fields of vision often overlap, ensuring that by the time you exit the view of one camera, you are clearly monitored by another. 

Surveillance at Carleton continues to increase. Within my time at Carleton alone, the college has installed massive camera systems in the entrance to the Libe, Sayles and LDC. Cameras like these leave the traditional one lens behind and are now equipped with four lenses that cover 360 degrees as you go to grab lunch or find a study spot with your friends. 

These changes seem on track to continue with new campus buildings. For example, the Weitz is outfitted with at least 37 cameras, ensuring almost complete coverage of student movement outside of classrooms and throughout the entire building. With new construction and renovations in new buildings, such as the Anderson Complex and Laird Hall, the college has continued to double down on these efforts, monitoring doorways, elevators, hallways, eating areas and more. With the recent KRLX renovations too, security quietly installed multiple cameras within the KRLX studio and the Record Libe, acting without any consultation or conversation with KRLX or their board. This controversial decision is covered further in the Carletonian’s KRLX Renovations piece. 

While rampant and unnecessary surveillance across campus is upsetting, what is most disturbing is the presence of security cameras inside of spaces that should be for students only.. While the Student Handbook asserts that “Surveillance cameras will not view private bedrooms, bathrooms, locker room dressing/shower areas, offices, classrooms not used as a lab, or areas through windows,” cameras like the Sony mini-dome facing the entire floor of First Goodhue come dangerously close, capturing the entrances to student dorm rooms and recording the movement of students down the hall. Residence halls like Goodhue are students’ homes and they deserve to live in them without being constantly watched as they walk to the bathroom at night or to the shower in towels, as well as gather in their lounges and halls without feeling as if they will be caught and punished with one wrong misstep. 

It is ironic that during our New Student Week CarlTalk with Campus Security, we were lectured on maintaining personal privacy and even encouraged to take free laptop webcam covers to keep from being recorded. In reality, student privacy from surveillance is not something that is valued or maintained at all on campus. 

Students shouldn’t have to feel like their guard is up or that there is an omnipresent watchful eye on their behavior; college is a time of learning and experimentation where students should be allowed to grow into the young adults they are becoming. Students should embrace this period of their lives fully and make the decisions and mistakes that come with growing up, at least in their living spaces. Unforgiving cameras in student spaces disrupt this development and send a message that students are unable to be trusted. This is unnecessary and ineffective, especially when other community-affirming systems are already in place that support student accountability, such as Residential Advisors and student organizations that cultivate responsibility across campus. These systems work with the student body in a positive way, instead of against them. 

All of these advanced systems beg the question: What is the purpose of all of this tracking? The college has clearly found this to be important by making such a large investment in this technology, with most cameras individually priced within a range of several hundred dollars to almost two thousand dollars. While the school claims in the Student Handbook that security systems are in place to “deter crime and assist in protecting the safety and property of the College,” I would argue that these systems don’t improve safety. Cameras don’t inherently protect students — instead, they serve to record and catch activities after the fact. With other systems in place to maintain the integrity of buildings, like the locks and RFID technology which limit student and community access to various spaces, the argument that cameras themselves are not necessarily central to Carleton’s safety or ability to prevent “crime.” In practice, it appears that much of surveillance cameras’ actual use on campus is to aid in punishing petty student violations that don’t even qualify as “crime,” as those acts are excluded from Security’s annual Crime Statistics Table in the Annual Security and Fire Safety Report. Camera purchase and placement often seems like a gross overreaction or simply unnecessary— examples include the tiny camera that hides inside the basement Nourse vending machine and the camera installed on top of LDC, trained to cover the Mini Bald Spot with its view. Indeed, with the adoption of body cameras on security guards, identifying and recording everyday student behavior has never been easier. 

Generally, camera surveillance identification can happen in a series of steps. First, surveillance footage captures behavior across the campus. Next, Security or another campus authority identifies something that is objectionable to the college. Then, Security analyzes associated camera footage. If the students in question are close enough to the surveillance camera to be recognized, security can pair video footage with student faces to determine identity and pursue punishment. However, security can still identify students if they are further away by capturing the clothes students are wearing, basic physical descriptions and the people the student may be with. Additionally, Security can parse through camera records on campus to track students forwards or backwards in time until they attain an identifiable image of the student, or until the unidentified student scans into a building with their OneCard. Ultimately, if they are looking for you, it is easy for Carleton to identify who you are and pursue subsequent actions with this technology. While they have significant resources, in practice, Security does not have the personnel or intent to “guarantee that cameras will be monitored in real time,” as per the Surveillance Camera Guidelines in the Campus Handbook. This means that unless Security has a reason to go back into specific footage to look for something and is actively trying to find an individual, most footage goes unwatched to the human eye.

The future of surveillance on campus appears grim. Carleton Security now drives around in two brand new Ford Police Interceptors — SUVs used across the nation by police departments, equipped with 270 degrees of Police Perimeter Alert and 75 MPH rear-impact crash reinforcement designed for high-speed law enforcement collisions. Students are monitored continuously through campus-wide systems like surveillance cameras, officer body cameras and OneCard logs. New camera installations across campus point to a trend of increased investment in surveillance tactics, with new additions being more expensive, higher quality and capable of capturing even more of Carleton. Student privacy on campus continues to be put under increasing jeopardy as surveillance creeps into student-spaces, ruining feelings of comfort and home that students need to feel safe. Additions of these cameras in areas like the Libe, inside LDC and in Residence Halls prove that even your most innocent actions are subject to scrutiny. While all these measures seem valuable in the interest of the Carleton administration, they diminish what is most valuable about Carleton College — the campus community and culture of peer-to-peer accountability is what makes Carleton so special. Carleton was not built on, and cannot continue to foster, an adversarial relationship with its student body. It stands to lose much of its core identity if it continues to pursue punitive and invasive methods as the primary means of maintaining campus integrity. 

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