Will Leaf: Hallway cameras unnecessarily threaten privacy

On Thursday, columnist Amanda Crowe criticized the efforts of Thurston residents who want to remove cameras from their hallways (“Thurston cameras not a privacy violation,” p. 4).

She argued that cameras protect students and raised the question, “If you aren’t doing anything wrong, then why does it matter that there are security cameras?” Her argument and her question deserve response. Cameras do not protect us, and unregulated surveillance hurts people who have done nothing wrong.

According to University Police Department statistics, in 2007, GW had 104 burglaries, 51 larcenies and 138 acts of vandalism on residential property. Recently, a Thurston community director told me UPD has gone through the Thurston video records only three times so far this year, twice for theft and once for vandalism. The vandalism case went unsolved. How can camera proponents claim a deterrent effect if only a tiny number of crimes are ever solved using surveillance?

The truth is that cameras were not installed to stop crimes against specific people. They were put in Thurston during the 1990s to stop false fire alarms. They were not installed to prevent burglaries, rapes or other dangers. If UPD now uses cameras to address these crimes, they have not succeeded as other universities have.

The University of Michigan is twice as big as GW and has dorms with more than 1,200 students. The dorms do not have cameras in hallways. According to crime logs from the last three years, Michigan has had consistently fewer burglaries on residential property than GW, despite its larger size and lack of cameras, reporting 14 to GW’s 104 in 2007.

American has adjoining dorms with thousands of students in one building, but AU has a lower proportional crime rate without cameras than GW does with them. While there are other factors to consider when comparing theft rates, the fact is that other universities with dorms as large as Thurston have managed to keep their students safer than GW’s without extensive surveillance.

Cameras are not only ineffective; they threaten our liberties. There is a simple response to the question, “If you aren’t doing anything wrong, then why does it matter that there are security cameras?” Because laws are made and enforced by imperfect people, cameras give authorities an undue level of control.

For example, UPD helps keep us safe, but they are also forced to punish alcohol and marijuana users. A police force with orders to punish victimless crimes should not have a constant presence in communities, which is why a growing majority of students in Thurston have signed a petition in opposition to hallway cameras.

Also, it seems likely that students who live under heavy surveillance during their first years of independence will be more willing to accept serious privacy abuses like warrantless wiretaps, detainment without charge and online privacy violations later in life.

The Constitution forbids unreasonable searches exactly because people who have nothing to hide are still threatened by a flawed government. GW administrators should teach students to respect civil liberties by replacing the intrusive and ineffective hallway cameras with UV dye traps designed to stop false fire alarms.

The writer, a freshman majoring in economics, started a petition this fall to abolish camera surveillance in Thurston Hall.

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