240 new security cameras on campus raise privacy concerns

As students returned to campus this fall, many noticed new infrastructure in their residences: security cameras. 

A $2.35 million project to bolster security at Stanford is driving 240 new security camera installations per year, including at select student residences and dining halls. According to University spokesperson Luisa Rapport, the cameras are part of a four-year plan “to keep our students and their belongings secure.”

The new cameras have not been at student residences for long, but they have already “captured images of criminal activity such as thefts” and “images of a violent crime suspect,” Rapport wrote. According to Rapport, the University previously planned to install 250 cameras per year, for a total estimated cost of $2.5 million.

The cameras have been subject to intense scrutiny in light of privacy concerns on campus. 

“I wouldn’t say that knowing that they exist makes me feel safe or protected. I have heard very little about any measures Stanford has taken to address crimes like theft or vandalism that I imagine could be caught on camera,” said Ujamaa resident Kayla Myers ’25. 

Rapport wrote that the camera security system is required to abide by the University’s Video Safety and Security Systems (VSSS) standards, which were developed by the Department of Public Safety (DPS), University IT and the Vice Provost for Student Affairs, among others. These standards include guidelines for designing an area’s security system, video monitoring policies and protocol for handling collected footage.

Black Student Union Co-President Alyssa Murray ’24 said many of the people she has discussed the camera installations with had no idea the cameras were even in place. She thinks more students should have been consulted prior to installing them.

“Increased surveillance, especially on the outside of dorms and student residences where we live and are supposed to feel safe and comfortable, do not make me feel safer. I do not think they make the majority of Black students feel safer,” Murray said.

“There is countless research that time and time again documents how communities of color are targeted and exploited by surveillance,” Murray said. “It feels disappointing that in the face of all this readily available research and information, the University still decided to move forward with increased surveillance and police involvement.”

Some students were consulted amid the planning for security enhancement, Rapport wrote, including students of CS 182: “Ethics, Public Policy, and Technological Change” in winter 2022, resident fellows whose houses would be impacted and the Committee on Academic Computing and Information Systems.

The University is “in the process of meeting with students to hear their concerns,” according to Rapport. She also wrote that the final two phases of camera installation are scheduled to take place over the next two years. 

Murray is also a member of Students for the Liberation of All People (SLAP), which issued a statement calling for an immediate halt to installation and removal of all newly installed security cameras.

SLAP underscored student concerns over potential adverse effects of the expanded security system. Some students are worried that increased surveillance “is not safe for student activists and student organizing efforts (especially Arab students, Palestinian students and any students advocating for Palestine right now),” according to the statement shared by Murray.

Some are further concerned that “footage can be used against survivors of sexual violence.” 

In the statement, SLAP wrote that residences that have traditionally supported marginalized communities, like Terra, have been impacted. Students voiced concerns that “students of color, and particularly Black students, are going to be disproportionately affected and discriminated against given the discrimination we already see against people of color in the current criminal legal system.”

In response to SLAP’s statement, Rapport wrote that “cameras have been on campus for many years, and installations include many different areas across campus, not just student residences.” According to her, “student safety is a primary concern.” 

According to the VSSS site, most cameras “are not routinely monitored in real time,” although this may change during events with high traffic or urgency. However, some locations identified as “high-security entry points, such as the SLAC main gate,” do receive such monitoring. Access to the collected footage is restricted to DPS and local managers, and “may only be used pursuant to the investigation of a criminal incident or policy violation complaint,” such as those of the Office of Community Standards and Title IX.

Sutton Yazzolino ’25 said that one of his residents had their bike stolen during New Student Orientation. Hoping to identify the bike thief, he and his co-staff searched for, but were unsuccessful in finding, security cameras that would have captured the crime. Ultimately, his co-staff “just filed a police report and stopped looking for a security tape,” Yazzolino said.

“I wish that Stanford would make it more apparent where security cameras are on campus so that when our bikes get stolen, which commonly occurs here, we can at least have evidence to aid in filing a police report and/or insurance claim,” Yazzolino said.

Temporary covert cameras may be used when deemed necessary for a police investigation, according to the VSSS website. The site further acknowledges that, although the University does not employ any facial recognition tools, other government agencies may use such tools upon retrieving footage.

“A thorough security vulnerability assessment [of an area] is performed by DPS,” Rapport wrote, in order to pinpoint any safety and property risks. Non-covert camera installations are accompanied by “conspicuous, standardized signage,” she wrote, to alert passersby of the cameras’ presence.

The statement from SLAP criticized the haziness surrounding footage requests. According to the group, “there is no explicit criteria that has been given for what merits an investigation and when representatives of [the Office for Student Conduct and the Title IX office] can ask for access.”

Myers said she wished Stanford was more transparent about how the use of security camera footage: “If anything, knowing that security cameras are around dorms makes me feel a bit uneasy because it’s like a reminder that students’ regular daily behavior is being surveilled.”

Rapport wrote that the University will “continue to work closely with the ASSU and other student groups,” and organizations like the University’s Community Board on Public Safety. According to her, the tight restrictions surrounding video footage release are present “to uphold Stanford’s commitment to privacy and data minimization.”