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Columns, Opinions

Wrenn GS: The surveillance school

By
Staff Columnist
Sunday, March 28, 2021

In the past several years, it has been fashionable to gawk in horror at China’s “social credit system,” an all-encompassing integration of surveillance, finance and state. Writing for The Triple Helix, Brown’s student publication focused on science and society, Priya Bhanot ’23 called China’s surveillance apparatus “Black Mirror Brought to Life.” China’s reputation for ubiquitous surveillance isn’t unjustified; a 2020 review of surveillance camera research by Comparitech found that of the world’s top 20 cities by cameras-per-capita, 18 are in China. But ubiquitous surveillance is far closer to home than Americans might think. As of 2020, Brown University has deployed one surveillance camera for approximately every 18 community members, placing it just shy of London, but ahead of every Chinese city except Taiyuan and Wuxi. In other words, Brown has about as many surveillance cameras as it does full-time faculty, of which it currently has 816!

It wasn’t always like this. In the span of two decades, Brown University quietly deployed an expansive surveillance apparatus, unbeknownst to many in the community; it’s well past time we critically examined our University’s pervasive surveillance of College Hill.

In 2000, the University only had 60 surveillance cameras, which the University mostly used to surveil parking lots and computer labs; a smattering watched Faunce’s club storage area, too. That year, Brown overhauled its fragmented VCR-based recording system into a fully-digital one, enabling Public Safety to monitor its cameras en masse from a central command center. This infrastructure investment marked a paradigm shift in Brown’s capacity for video surveillance.

By 2003, the total had increased to 105 cameras, with some now watching Faunce’s game room and the Main Green. According to The Chronicle, this proliferation of cameras into recreation spaces drew students’ first complaints about camera surveillance:

At Brown University, students have not complained about the cameras that watch over areas such as the basement of a student center. But students did object to a proposal to place cameras facing the main green of campus — to help manage crowds during commencement and other major events — says David Cardoza, card-access manager for the university’s security department.

Nevertheless, Brown continued to deploy new surveillance cameras in public spaces. By 2007, Brown had deployed 185 cameras, with 16 newly-installed cameras monitoring the Friedman Study Center in the Sciences Library. By 2011, Brown had deployed 250 cameras.

From here, the rate of installation increased drastically. In December 2013, the Campus Safety Task Force touted that Brown had deployed 430 cameras and a new array of 47 storage units for their footage. As of February 2020, the latest date for which data is publicly available, Brown University operates approximately 800 surveillance cameras. Following a spree of hateful graffiti in Hegeman Hall, the University installed its first cameras inside a dormitory. At the time of writing, the cameras remain installed.

This explosive proliferation of surveillance cameras at Brown University has progressed virtually unchecked and without community input. University Chief of Police Mark Porter suggested that the proliferation of cameras may reduce students’ fear of crime, but campus sentiment is considerably less enthusiastic about surveillance. In fall 2010, Herald editorial cartoonist Evan Donahue ’11 posted hoax letters in Keeney for a class project that announced the installation of security cameras around Keeney and Pembroke. Dylan Field ’13, a Residential Counselor in Keeney, told The Herald he was worried about the possibility of camera installation. Richard Bova, then-senior associate dean of Residential and Dining Services, categorically rejected the letter’s premise: “There has never been a plan — never will be a plan — to install cameras in any residence halls.” Of course, there eventually was such a plan.

Statements from DPS staff suggest a position of seemingly-limitless surveillance. “When you’re getting into the investigative side, you couldn’t have enough cameras,” said DPS Technical and Support Systems Manager David Cardoza to The Herald in 2008. Yet, in a 2011 interview with The Herald, Porter estimated that only about six crimes had been solved with the help of cameras. These solved crimes included the theft of a laptop from the Brown Bookstore and the truly shocking case of a thrown soda can in Faunce.

The successful use of cameras as an investigative aid in these incidents fails to justify the monetary expense of the camera system (exceeding $300,000 in 2000), much less the cost of students’ privacy. So what good are they? Speaking to The Herald in 2011, Porter instead emphasized the cameras’ purpose to deter, rather than aid in investigations: “We know that when we install them, that people will know they’re there.” This troubling justification invokes the specter of pre-crime — the almost-unfalsifiable presumption that there are agents on College Hill who would terrorize our community if not for the thin blue line of ubiquitous surveillance.

This justification warrants skepticism. A 40-year systemic review and meta-analysis published in 2019 found that passively monitored surveillance camera systems — like that adopted by Brown University — had no significant effect of crime reduction. Nor is it credible that “people will know” that cameras are there. Katie Goddard ’12 remarked to The Herald in 2011, “I haven’t noticed them”; neither had Daniel Valmas ’12, also interviewed by The Herald. Indeed, DPS makes no effort to draw attention to its surveillance cameras.

Rather, Brown University outright obscures the extent of its surveillance of College Hill. In 2008, the University declined to release its policy governing surveillance cameras to The Herald, or to provide a list of camera locations, or comment on how long recorded footage is archived for. The University’s surveillance policy, location of cameras and data retention practices remain completely opaque.

How can the Brown community engage in an informed discussion about surveillance if they are unaware of the scope of the surveillance? Until the University embraces transparency, the practice of “sousveillance” — the monitoring of people and institutions of authority by ordinary citizens — provides a means by which we students can educate ourselves and our peers. Since 2017, my friends and I have marked the locations of approximately 150 surveillance cameras on College Hill. While this is only a fraction of Brown University’s more than 800 cameras, the scope of the surveillance is staggering: It is impossible to cross (or even approach) Brown University without being surveilled. I encourage you to try.

John Wrenn MS’18 PhD’21 is a fifth-year doctoral candidate. He can be contacted at me@jswrenn.com, where he would be delighted to instruct you in the sousveillance of Brown University. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.

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  1. The same people who oppose surveillance support vaccine passports and a political party that tramples on civil liberties in its Orwellian power grab, can’t make this up!

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