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Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Columns

Don’t forget CCTV


The heat is off for traditional privacy-invading devices — like surveillance cameras — thanks to all the attention on data mining in social media.

But there is no doubt — surveillance cameras are not obsolete. Privacy International estimates that there are more than 25 million closed-circuit television cameras in operation right now. They’re in the gas station at Scott and Elgin. They’re in the cab you took to get to downtown yesterday. They’re on the street corners, albeit deactivated. They’re on campus as well.

The University of Houston Department of Public Safety monitors approximately 500 security cameras. These cameras cover parking lots, inside and outside buildings, corners, high traffic areas and any other nooks and crannies. Frighteningly, they’re only adding more. Why add more? The UHDPS website has an explanation:

“The safety of our campus community is the driving force of UHDPS. Reducing the opportunity for individuals to commit crimes on campus is crucial to providing a safe learning and working environment. This is the primary reason we are implementing a plan to install additional video security cameras in selected areas.”

UHDPS wants to monitor criminals. That’s fine, although monitoring everyone to monitor criminals treads murky water.

UH cameras record 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. UHDPS says the cameras are intended to monitor crime, but they’re also monitoring you as you walk to class, when you pick your nose and when you adjust your bra strap. UH cameras are looking when you sit and smoke a cigarette, but since the cameras are grainy, it might be a joint for all they know.

Are these cameras invading student privacy? UHDPS says the system is not in restrooms, locker rooms, living quarters or the examining areas at the UH Health Center. Since being in public is by definition not private, they’re in the clear.

Security cameras aren’t a problem by themselves. They’re cheap, low-quality and can’t tell who is who through the grainy image that feeds into the 24-hour monitoring room. The problem is in the law and the technology.

Houston voters banded together to ban the controversial red-light cameras in a referendum last year. The legal battle took months, and millions of dollars were on the line for both the city and for the company that set up the traffic-violation-trapping lenses. However, these were legally contracted public cameras. The law on hidden cameras varies from state-to-state. Of course criminals and voyeurs don’t care much for following the law, so why would they have scruples about installing a hidden camera inside a dressing room or over an ATM?

The increase in digital technology is just as concerning as the law. Face recognition software is too pricey for UH, but in areas like the UK, closed-circuit television cameras have already gone through the trial version with good success. German airports use the software with ease and the US Department of State has approximately 75 million photos in its face recognition database for processing visas.

The issue of privacy is not trivial. Proponents of cameras say they’re no big deal, and that people who have nothing to hide need not worry. The argument is if you buy a laptop with a camera or own a device with a lens on it, you have no right to worry about surveillance.

Tyler Clementi, the Rutgers University student who jumped to his death two years ago, would probably disagree.  Clementi felt the need to commit suicide after his roommate used iChat messaging software and a pair of webcams to spy on Clementi’s romantic life and then tweet about it.

The Lower Merion School District in Philadelphia issued laptops to students in 2010, which contained pre-installed webcams (in addition to remote-activation software). The school acknowledged that webcams were remotely activated 42 times over 14 months, “to find missing, lost or stolen laptops” since many students took the laptops to and from school. Without student knowledge, the schools remotely accessed the laptops to secretly photograph students, read their chat logs and record which websites the students went to.

The school agreed to pay $610,000 in the resulting class-action lawsuit. The students hopefully learned a lesson about leaving laptops on 24 hours a day.

Still, keeping a webcam off isn’t difficult. What about a hidden camera? With $45 and a debit card you can get a pinhole-sized spy cam off the internet that will easily fit just behind a ventilation shaft, inside a smoke detector or a fake ceiling sprinkler. Not to mention the different software programs that allow remote control of desktop, laptop, smart phone and tablet cameras.This isn’t government-level tech. Spy cams are so readily available even a poor James Bond could afford one.

There’s a good chance a camera is staring you in the face right now. Say cheese.

David Haydon is a political science senior and may be reached at [email protected]

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