The Camera Chronicles: Big Jumbo is Watching You
Over the past five years, Tufts University has rapidly expanded their video surveillance system. Now, a TUPD operator can access hundreds of high-definition live video feeds at any given time of day.
On Barnum Hall, a camera with the capability to zoom in on details up to 40 times has been installed at eye level, surveilling Jumbo the Elephant and anybody who may traverse in his vicinity. Tisch Library has seen the recent installation of a fisheye lens camera, which has 360 degree visibility. One librarian at the circulation desk appreciated the added security, which provides a better view of the elevator corridor as well as the printing stations.
All of these cameras are operated through Tufts’s Department of Public and Environmental Safety (DPES), which is also the overseeing body for TUPD and other public safety entities on campus. They maintain a “video security policy,” that, according to their website, is “required to review and update the policy annually.” Despite this, the system’s maintenance and upkeep has remained opaque. The online policy has remained the same, word for word, since its conception in 2014. The DPES was contacted with regards to why the policy has not been updated, but did not respond by press time.
During a community engagement initiative held in 2012, Tufts students, faculty, and staff had the opportunity to provide input on DPES’s video security policy in order to provide an “open and transparent policy development process.” Seven years later, many of the initiative leaders are no longer part of the Tufts community, and are unable to see how their policy has been implemented. Kevin Maguire recently decided to step down from his position as police chief—and concurrent leader of the video security project. Patricia Campbell, who was responsible for project management, retired this March. The future leadership of the project is currently unknown.
The policy was created with the intent of balancing “the need to protect the safety and security of the Tufts community with the preservation of individual privacy.” However, TUPD is still allowed to utilize covert surveillance in non-criminal investigations, according to the policy. This is contradictory to a previous clause in the policy, which states that “unless being used for criminal investigations, all video security camera installations will be visible.”
Tufts policy also states that “the use of digital analytics can interpret imagery and alert human operators to abnormal conditions.” The cameras utilized by Tufts University are part of Panasonic’s “i-PRO” line, which are optimized for facial recognition software. Furthermore, Tufts’s own video management system (VMS) software, exacqVision, has facial recognition capabilities. It is unclear whether Tufts takes advantage of these surveillance capabilities.
The market prices of the cameras operated by TUPD range from several hundred dollars to several thousand dollars per unit. With hundreds of cameras combined with the costs of installation and maintenance, Tufts’s new surveillance capabilities also represent a significant financial investment.
Part of the increased focus on security around educational institutions can be attributed to recent incidents of school violence. In 2016, Tufts University was terrorized by a bomb threat and car fire directly outside of Health Services. Health Services is one of the buildings that must maintain utmost confidentiality; as a result, there were no cameras placed in view of the incident.
Similar to the Health Services parking lot, large amounts of campus remain unsurveilled—and are likely to stay that way. Even with the influx of video surveillance, anonymous acts of violence can still occur in restrooms, dorms, and other areas that are protected by common-sense privacy rules. In a hypothetical scenario, a majority of areas with cameras will not always compensate for the minority of areas without them.
The entrances of nearly all dorms are now outfitted with cameras. Tufts’s new community housing for upperclassmen, referred to as “CoHo,” has cameras adjacent to all doors. The SMFA campus’ main complex houses over 40 cameras, both inside and outside of the building. The Science and Engineering Complex in Medford has dozens of cameras that watch over key ingresses and pathways, as well as common areas and the Kindlevan Café. With the completion of the Joyce Cummings Multidisciplinary Studies Center in 2021, it is very likely that there will once again be a sharp increase in the number of surveillance cameras on campus.
In 2017, LGBT Center Director Hope Freeman requested cameras around 226 College Avenue following a slew of hate-fueled incidents. She and other students expressed discomfort with a camera that was mounted on the interior of the house, noting to the Tufts Daily that there was a “shift in the sense of safety.” The presence of the camera inside the building was startling for a space that has the purpose of making individuals feel as comfortable as possible. Its subsequent removal highlights the police department’s failure to thoroughly consult with community members.
Because the Tufts campus straddles multiple cities, the laws the institution must abide by are complex. In June, Somerville became the second city in the United States to ban facial recognition in public spaces. In regards to creating better transparency, police Chief David Fallon stated, “When we build trust and confidence in our force and our methods, we strengthen the community connections that ultimately help us keep Somerville safe.”
If located in Somerville, many cameras operated by Tufts University must adhere to this policy. TUPD is headquartered in Medford, and as such, many cameras aren’t subject to these laws. In addition, the policy does not prevent TUPD from utilizing other digital analytics that can distinguish people from cars, bags, or other moving objects. Individuals can still be tracked in real time, their bodies retrieved from footage and further analyzed for certain actions, such as walking, standing, or fighting. From an investigative standpoint, these tools are tremendously powerful. However, some students have expressed concern with the software. One student, who wished to remain anonymous, was apprehensive about the software’s potential to “track all of your movements, know where you are [and] what you are doing,” something which he concluded to be an “invasion of personal privacy.”
The university’s current security system has become an interconnected network that spans campuses across multiple cities. With the introduction of advanced video analytics, it is still hard to say whether or not students feel safer with more cameras. Another student, who also wished to remain anonymous, mentioned that she wasn’t aware of the impact the cameras have made thus far, and as such was unsure. She added that cameras typically do deter people from committing crimes.
Even with their attempts to enact transparency with the policy, the extent to which TUPD utilizes video analytics has yet to be established. In addition, students who identify with communities that have been impacted by law enforcement misconduct might be more likely to be concerned with these policing techniques if better transparency is not exercised.
While the impact of these new cameras has yet to be ascertained, Tufts’ recent rapid expansion of surveillance cameras without community input raises critical questions of transparency and accountability.