Surveillance was controversial even before video cameras came on the scene. But whether you think universities have the right to record behavior on campus or would prefer they mind their own business, it’s worth noting that most colleges have sophisticated surveillance systems that are tracking students and faculty all over campus, and sometimes snooping into their e-mail, too. In 2011, a court sided with Elizabethtown College after they searched a student’s school-issued account when the student engaged in “threatening behavior” toward a faculty member (Internet Cases).
Because colleges are deploying and managing much of the technology that students use, or at least the networks they use it on, there is a burden to keep users safe. In their efforts to do just that, colleges take steps beyond what most organizations do. But how much is too much?
To some in the higher education community, surveillance is not only prudent but also necessary:
I worked as a consultant for a university not long ago and discovered that the hot topic there was the institution's video surveillance system. Some people expressed surprise and outrage when they discovered that the university operated an elaborate network of sophisticated cameras monitoring almost every corner of the campus. The university had no right to install that technology, critics argued, because it was an invasion of privacy, a violation of academic freedom, and possibly even unconstitutional.
I was surprised that they were surprised. For many years, universities have been employing comprehensive video surveillance to enhance campus security, and that technology has done much to reduce crime, foster a climate of safety, and even save lives.
Read Yes, Big Brother Is Watching on The Chronicle of Higher Education.
For others, surveillance creates problems that could potentially be worse than any crimes prevented because of the cameras. Philosopher Sandro Gaycken spoke on this topic at the Chaos Communication Camp in 2008:
Gaycken argued that there are well-established psychological consequences to being watched, observed consistently in studies. People change, tailoring their behavior to fit what they believe the observer wants (or in some cases actively rebelling against those wishes).
Now imagine a society where everyone knows they are or may be watched as they walk through the streets, or while surfing online. That – as in societies like Hitler’s Germany or Soviet Russia – will have tangible and widespread psychological consequences, reinforcing conformity, and literally crippling the ability to make autonomous and ethical decisions, he argued.
Read Maybe surveillance is bad, after all on Wired.
Arguments can be made for either side, but it’s a good idea to educate yourself on the surveillance operation that your college is running. The infographic below outlines how many colleges manage surveillance and features some of the concerns that have arisen as a result.