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The University of Kentucky’s $5 million installation of 2,000 surveillance cameras is overly intrusive
The University of Kentucky recently announced it would install 2,000 surveillance cameras on its campus. The move is part of a security overhaul that will cost the school $5 million. Kentucky’s American Civil Liberties Union chapter has already spoken out against the decision, voicing worries that the massive amount of information that the cameras will collect could be misused. Privacy concerns aside, putting up 2,000 cameras, even with a student population of roughly 29,000, is overkill. Precautions of this magnitude may do campus culture more harm than good. Though the school might become marginally safer, the measure smacks of paternalism.
To give the security overhaul a fair hearing, we should assess the ways in which security cameras promote safety. First, the ubiquitous presence of cameras on campus might preempt wrongdoing. A person who wishes to steal an overlooked laptop or attack a student late at night might be aware of the cameras. Fearing that he will be caught when police officers review the tapes, he might decide against committing a crime. Second, cameras provide law-enforcement officials with images and audio that can help them respond to crimes. This function, however, is a second-order manner of promoting safety. In such cases, the cameras do not prevent the crime. They merely give the officers more information after the fact.
Like cameras, emergency blue lights — which trigger calls to university police when pressed — can dissuade potential perpetrators. Unlike cameras, emergency blue lights can promote safety in a first-order manner. A student fleeing a potential assailant can press a blue light. Police will arrive, and a crime might be prevented. Cameras, in contrast, merely look on impassively. As part of the larger security overhaul, the University of Kentucky is installing 26 emergency towers, similar to the University’s blue-light system. That expense is probably worthwhile. A deluge of security cameras, in contrast, offers less benefit than emergency towers. The cameras also cost more and raise privacy concerns. So why spend millions on them?
One can imagine circumstances in which the installation of 2,000 cameras on a college campus might be justifiable. Let’s imagine a college that has, for several years, had unusually high on-campus crime rates. The installation of thousands of cameras might be an effective response on the part of the school’s administration. A move this dramatic is less justifiable when it does not come from a recognizable need. As far as we can tell, the University of Kentucky is not an unusually dangerous place. The school’s student body president recently told a local newspaper that “students have felt really safe on campus.” Though people often call upon leaders to be “proactive” rather than “reactive,” unless the University of Kentucky’s administration anticipates a crime wave hitting its campus, this security installation is not an example of farsighted leadership. It is paternalism at best, paranoia at worst.
The University of Kentucky’s large-scale camera installation is overly intrusive. While any school should revise and strengthen safety measures on a regular basis, the University of Kentucky does not appear in dire need of 2,000 security cameras. The extent to which the surveillance cameras will promote student safety is equally doubtful. The installation of emergency towers might well have been enough. Instead of tangling with privacy issues and creating a campus on which students are always under surveillance, the University of Kentucky should have saved its money.