The University Police Department’s “Campus Watch” initiative, through which up to 40 student volunteers will get free Sprint cell phones that only call UPD, might sound like a great way to get students involved in security. But in practice, the program’s apparent lack of detailed guidelines and limitations leaves the system vulnerable to misuse and abuse.
If this program is limited to serious safety issues, it can do some good, but any other use of the system creates serious ethical questions regarding students policing other students. Students should know exactly what these students with cell phones are looking for. Getting students to keep an eye out for “suspicious activity or breaches in security,” such as assaults or break-ins, is a good idea. Enabling students, however, to rat someone out to UPD for revenge or to legitimize students that spy on other students minding their own business is a bad idea.
UPD is faced with tough questions that students should get answers to before enacting this program. Will these students report underage drinking and the like, or will the phones be restricted to serious causes of alert? What type of student will want to report the activities of fellow students, and how is that going to make students around those that do this feel? Will students with these phones be held responsible for not reporting “suspicious activity” they see? What is suspicious to one student may not be worth calling the police over and will waste UPD time and resources checking out minute disruptions.
Whatever the limitations of call-ins, UPD is giving a lot of power to a few students whose identities will remain confidential. This enables any of these volunteers to use the system for their own devices, such as alerting UPD to a party they did not get into or to the actions of a student they dislike.
Why does UPD need to give out special cell phones to get people to call about security concerns? Any student can do this already. Most students already have cell phones and those who do not surely have friends who do. All students should know to call the police if they see anything suspicious. It is unlikely that students are witnessing suspicious activities all over campus, but are just not reporting them because they do not have special, UPD-issued phones.
In theory this is a good idea and the intent is noble, and one cannot overly criticize a free program. UPD should simply be aware that enacting this program under vague guidelines is dangerous to student privacy and overall comfort among peers.