Video surveillance uses video cameras to transmit data to monitors or recording devices and is designed to observe people in a variety of settings. Video cameras can be used as part of overall security efforts, as a tool to address theft or vandalism that has occurred, or as a tool to ensure worker productivity. Officials in institutions of higher learning who choose to use video surveillance cameras must balance concerns for safety and productivity with Fourth Amendment rights related to the privacy of students, faculty, and staff. This entry describes video surveillance technology and examines the tensions that can arise when officials approve its use on campuses. Officials at institutions desiring to use available technology must understand these issues and respect the privacy and security concerns in designing systems that will be both effective and accepted in their campus communities.
The quality of video surveillance technology has significantly improved in recent years. Technology exists to obtain video in settings where there is little or no light. Video equipment may be monitored in real time, but it is often tied to recording devices where electronic information is maintained in a computer database for review at a time after the recording is created. The collection of audio data is generally prohibited under Title I of the Electronic Communication Privacy Act (ECPA) of 2002. However, the ECPA does not regulate silent video surveillance.
Video surveillance raises a number of competing legal and philosophical issues. The mere physical presence of video cameras on campus may suggest that campuses are dangerous places and thus have the unintended effect of reinforcing a climate of fear. On the other hand, the presence of video cameras can mislead students and others into believing that campuses are safe places, thereby creating false senses of security and blurring the line of responsibility that individuals must have for ensuring their own safety. In addition, the use of video cameras raises significant political issues that must be considered by leaders in campus communities. The fact that “someone is watching” may raise criticisms from students and staff who argue that the use of such cameras threatens their privacy. Some critics may ask whether “Big Brother” is coming to campus. From this perspective, cameras may be viewed as icons of an Orwellian approach to campus security, a potentially thorny political issue that must be considered and debated on campuses.
Video cameras used as part of a surveillance effort serve both a deterrent and an enforcement purpose. Placing cameras on campus and publicizing their use will have a deterrent effect. Video cameras, and the records they produce, can be used to identify offenders and to document conduct that runs afoul of institutional rules, policies, or laws.
Cameras may be placed as part of comprehensive plans to address potential problems such as theft, assaults, vandalism, bullying, and other offenses. In such situations, placement of cameras may not be made public, at least not their locations. Under these conditions, cameras may well have little deterrent effect but are employed to identify offenders as part of law enforcement efforts. Video surveillance technology thus gives institutional officials opportunities to identify suspects after unlawful or inappropriate activities have occurred.
Officials on both public and private college and university campuses need to take the issue of privacy seriously when evaluating the use of video surveillance technology. Careful consideration of the location to be observed should reduce the opportunity for claims of violations of privacy rights to arise. Cameras should not be placed in areas where persons likely to be observed have reasonable expectations of privacy. Placing cameras in bathroom stalls or locker rooms, for example, would likely violate reasonable expectations of privacy. On the other hand, placing cameras in areas where individuals lack a reasonable expectation of privacy, such as at entrances of buildings, in hallways, or in gymnasia, is really no different from assigning staff members to observe events at those locations, because both cameras and staff members can observe and record activities at assigned or designated locations. Even so, cameras perhaps provide better records and, in the long run, may be more cost effective and more effective initiatives while creating potentially permanent and more accurate records of what has occurred.
Addressing the expectation of privacy at the outset is important. Letting those affected know that they may be subject to video monitoring while on campus should remove the expectation of privacy that may otherwise exist. Statements in student and staff handbooks along with signs in areas where cameras are in use address the privacy issue up front by removing the privacy expectation.
The placement of cameras in workplace areas may negatively impact employee morale while increasing anxiety. Video surveillance in the workplace may also raise labor relations issues in unionized settings, because the introduction of video surveillance technology into the workplace may be a mandatory subject of collective bargaining. In other words, institutional employers may have obligations to bargain with employee unions concerning decisions to use such technology, how it will be used, and the circumstances under which it will be used. Moreover, employers may have to bargain the “effects” of using such technology. That is, once records are created, questions may arise over how they are to be used and the circumstances under which they may be used, such as in disciplinary or dismissal proceedings. Ultimately, attorneys and other educational leaders on campuses will need to review state and federal laws should they consider the use of video surveillance technology.
Institutions considering video surveillance technology that are subject to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) must also consider the FERPA implications arising out of the use of such technology, including, where applicable, the records created in the process. Further, public institutions that are subject to state records laws need to consider whether the records created through the use of video surveillance technology are public records. Records created using video surveillance technology may need to be maintained and preserved if this is required by law. A case from K–12 education may be informative in this regard as to whether videotapes are treated as part of student records that may be subject to disclosure. The Supreme Court of Washington ruled that a videotape of students that was made while they were passengers on a school bus surveillance camera was subject to disclosure under state law, because it was not a record that contained personal information relating to their education (Lindeman v. Kelso School District No. 458 (2007).
Jon E. Anderson
See also Fourth Amendment Rights of Faculty; Fourth Amendment Rights of Students; Privacy Rights of Faculty Members; Privacy Rights of Students
Blitz, M. J. (2004). Video surveillance and the constitution of public space: Fitting the Fourth Amendment to a world that tracks image and identity. Texas Law Review, 82, 1349–1422.
Carr, J. G., & Bellia, P. L. (2008–2009). The law of electronic surveillance. National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities, School Security Technologies. Eagen, MN: Thomson West.
Davis, L. M. (2008). Has Big Brother moved off campus? An examination of college communities’ responses to unruly student behavior. Journal of Law and Education, 35, 153–197.
Electronic Communication Privacy Act, 18 U.S.C § 2510 (2002).
Family Education Rights and Privacy Act, 20 U.S.C. § 1232g.
Lindeman v. Kelso School District No. 458, 172 P.3d 329 (Wash. 2007).