Public Access: Camera Surveillance on Campus

by Christopher Cartwright | 10/25/17 2:25am

I entered 5 Rope Ferry Road, ascended three flights of stairs and began to travel down a nondescript office hallway. Up ahead, a sign-in counter awaited me. I stopped at the desk, where a Safety and Security officer communicated with Keysi Montás, the interim director of Safety and Security. Behind this officer lay several TV monitors, each subdivided into smaller screens that displayed various locations on campus. From this regular office room at the headquarters of Safety and Security, one could monitor activity by utilizing the 150 cameras interspersed across campus. Is this feature of Dartmouth one that improves the safety of its students and faculty, or does it invade their privacy?

From the beginning of our interview, Montás made it clear that Safety and Security is not a surveillance operation.

“That term implies following and watching after somebody,” he said.

Instead, the cameras serve two main purposes: First, they are meant to deter any form of crime on campus. One well-known example of this are ATM robberies, which significantly decreased after cameras were installed near ATMs across the country. The second purpose of the cameras is that they aid in investigation if, and when, a crime occurs.

Montás noted the use of cameras is related to access control.

“The idea of access control is not necessarily to prevent access but to provide access in a controlled manner,” he said.

Montás said there are about 150 cameras on campus, ranging from outdoor ones to some inside buildings, such as Sarner Underground, the hallways of Baker-Berry Library and the Class of 1953 Commons.

When asked their opinions on surveillance cameras around campus, several students mentioned that it makes them feel safer overall. Timothy Yang ’21 said that he appreciates the reassurance that if something of his was stolen, such as his bike, Safety and Security could use cameras to catch the thief.

Yang, like Montás, said the cameras could deter crime.

“People will be discouraged [from acting negatively] when they know there are surveillance cameras around watching them, so I feel like having this is just another layer of protection,” Yang said.

Michaela Artavia-High ’21, however, said she wished cameras were more widely distributed throughout campus, especially in more secluded places.

“I feel that there shouldn’t be quite as many [cameras] indoors,” she said. “I’d much rather have more cameras watching me walk home than cameras watching us at Novack.”

Montás mentioned a few of the existing locations for outdoor cameras. One such location overlooks the area in front of Parkhurst Hall but is hidden well enough that students do not usually notice it.

He also noted that there are a few public access cameras scattered around campus, such as the live webcam from Baker Tower, which anyone in the world can log into and view. Another public access camera is located at the Hanover Inn, while a third is located at the top of Robinson Hall. The last two cameras are sponsored by the Classes of 1966 and 2016, respectively.

After learning about these webcams, I decided to give them a try. The ones at the top of Robinson Hall and the Hanover Inn can zoom in, pan left and right and tilt up and down. If other users are currently logged in, you must wait in an online queue to take your turn using the cameras. An interesting aspect of these cameras is that they have several presets that one can select to view a specific area of campus. For example, I could easily select the Wheelock and Main Street intersection preset to view the pedestrians and cars passing on the street in real time.

Several of the students I spoke to considered the public access webcams scarier than the Safety and Security ones, since there is no way to tell who is using them. However, since most of the cameras are located in public spaces — and none are allowed in the dorms — many students believe that the cameras, overall, benefit the community more than they harm it.

But do Safety and Security officers continuously monitor the cameras on campus? The answer, in short, is that they do not have the time or staff. Although there is sometimes an officer at the sign-in desk watching the video feeds, the department’s main priority is to protect students, which involves much more than just watching surveillance footage. Safety and Security officers patrol campus regularly to deter crime, and only if a crime has occurred will the officers go back to review the camera footage.

Montás added that it is difficult to provide concrete evidence that the surveillance cameras have stopped crime at Dartmouth, since no data has been collected about crime rate before and after implementing the cameras. However, there have been several cases in which the cameras have helped solve crime. One notable example occurred when a person threw an object at a building, which was caught in the surveillance footage.

There was one final question I had for Montás, however. When asked about anything unusual or funny that was spotted on the cameras, he recalled one incident when reviewing footage of a loading dock for a case. In the footage, a person walked straight into a van.

“Right into it, as if it wasn’t there,” he said, laughing.