During the internal examination of Yale Police Department procedure that followed an officer’s detention of Tahj Blow ’16 on Cross Campus on Jan. 24, investigators drew heavily upon video footage of the incident. While the officer was exonerated of any wrongdoing, questions have since emerged about the level of video surveillance on campus.
The video footage involved in the investigation came from two cameras on campus — the “Calhoun dining hall exterior camera,” and the “Cross Campus camera,” as written in the YPD’s report about the investigation. Though some community members interviewed said the existence of security cameras in public spaces makes them feel safe, others questioned the privacy implications of video surveillance. But all highlighted a lack of awareness and information about the cameras.
“It seems to me that [the cameras’ existence] does raise questions about privacy — expectations of privacy for students, faculty and visitors to Yale’s campus … in absence of notification to the contrary,” said philosophy professor Shelly Kagan, who was unaware of the presence of cameras until he read the YPD’s report. “It’d be one thing if there were big signs up around — when someone walks into a bank, everyone knows that cameras are around — but there are no signs like that.”
According to Deputy Vice President for Human Resources and Administration Janet Lindner, who oversees the YPD and Yale Security, surveillance cameras are located on the street, near building entrances or in other areas “where security is extremely critical,” such as a museum. They are also located above each of the roughly 400 emergency blue phones on campus. There are no cameras inside residential colleges or other private spaces, she added.
These cameras have been instrumental in the past toward helping the YPD make quick arrests, Lindner said, citing incidents in which the cameras documented students’ activation of a blue phone while they were being robbed.
But just because cameras are helpful in solving crimes does not mean that they should be there in the first place, Kagan said.
“If the government installed security cameras in all of our houses, it would be easier to catch people who murder people in their homes,” he said. “But those considerations need to be balanced out against reasonable privacy concerns. I don’t have enough facts about what balance has been judged here.”
Austin Wang ’17 echoed Kagan’s concerns. Wang said he was previously unaware of the presence of cameras on campus, even in public areas, adding that he felt they were an invasion of privacy.
Emmy Reinwald ’17, who was also unaware of the cameras, said that while she does not think they necessarily constitute an invasion of privacy, the lack of clear information about their existence is troubling.
“I’m okay with cameras in public spaces, especially for safety reasons, but it concerns me that Yale does not advertise this,” she said. “Not informing students about the cameras makes me question the University’s motives for having them, since I would think Yale would highlight them as a safety precaution if that’s what they were intended for.”
But Lindner said many students, faculty and staff actually request heightened security, including security cameras.
Of 13 students interviewed, eight said they were unaware of — but unsurprised by — the presence of security cameras on campus. Only one student was able to name the specific location of one.
“I’m comfortable with there being cameras outside for security purposes,” Andi Peng ’18 said. “I wouldn’t want one inside of my residential college or room though.”
According to a 1999 guide on security technologies in colleges and universities released by the U.S. Department of Justice, their most recent report on the subject, cameras may not be used in locations where there is a “reasonable expectation of privacy.” But security camera footage is also not covered under the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974, which protects the confidentiality of students’ academic records. As a result, this footage may be shared with law enforcement officials as is deemed appropriate.
Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway emphasized that the cameras serve the purpose of security and not surveillance. While he did not know if the cameras are active 24 hours a day, he said the cameras are certainly not constantly monitored.
“There’s no way that Yale is going to commit the resources, nor does Yale have the interest, in having human beings [do a] 24-hour live monitoring [of] the cameras,” he said.
George Hines, director of Yale Security Systems, directed request for comment to the Office of Public Affairs and Communications. University spokesman Tom Conroy did not return a request for comment.
Security cameras have played a key role in previous YPD investigations on campus, including the 2009 murder of graduate student Annie Le. During the investigation, camera footage revealed that Le entered her workspace in the morning but never left. This evidence prompted law enforcement officials to search the entire building, eventually finding her body.
Still, Kagan said that though there may be good reasons for security cameras on campus, there is a need for clearer communication about their purpose.
“It seems to me that … the Yale community is oblivious to this, and that very fact strikes me as problematic, even if there’s an overall justification for doing it,” he said.