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UBC CCTV debate heats up following assaults

Walking down East Mall on the University of B.C. campus, graduate student Sarah Higgins wonders what the street would look…

By Emily Fister , in City , on November 22, 2013 Tags: , , , ,

Privacy is a concern at UBC, as the administration debates about adding security cameras to prevent future sexual assaults.
Privacy is a concern at UBC, as the administration debates adding security cameras.

Walking down East Mall on the University of B.C. campus, graduate student Sarah Higgins wonders what the street would look like with security cameras.

“I’m hesitant to like them,” she said. “But if they were here, I would appreciate their existence.”

Higgins is not the only uncertain one on campus, as the university considers introducing a closed-circuit security camera system in the wake of a series of sexual assaults.

At a recent press conference on Oct. 30, university president Stephen Toope mentioned that the administration is cautious about implementing any form of public security camera on the campus. But he did hint they’re under consideration.

“That’s going to be a longer-term discussion,” Toope said. “I certainly am reluctant to make a commitment at this point that the entire campus would be subject to surveillance.”

That has brought familiar arguments about privacy and security to a campus that had been relatively free of that discussion until now.

Campus privacy a priority

Across Canada, security camera surveillance is common on university campuses.

Simon Fraser University and the British Columbia Institute of Technology already have CCTV systems. In Toronto, York University — a campus notorious for sexual assaults in the past — has approximately 660 cameras in public spaces on its campus.

Right now, RCMP Sgt. Drew Grainger is open to the idea at UBC.

He believes that a security camera system would not only increase the chances of catching the sexual predator and preventing future assaults, but would also be beneficial in the long-term to monitor theft — the most prevalent being bicycles and laptops.

“We would embrace more security cameras on campus for sure,” Grainger said. “But we of course understand that there are privacy issues on campus and we have to be respectful of the university’s decision. We’re in constant dialogue making recommendations.”

Visible to the public

Anything the university does will get special scrutiny from B.C.’s information and privacy commissioner.

Many Canadian universities already have security camera systems in public spaces, but UBC is cautious to adopt similar measures.
Many Canadian universities already have security camera systems in public spaces, but UBC is cautious about adopting similar measures.

In its report detailing guidelines for video surveillance in the public sector, the office specifies that universities must be prepared to justify the use of a surveillance system and complete a privacy-impact assessment.

Any CCTV should be in a visible public place, with signage to alert the public that surveillance is or may be in operation.

Even if they are positioned in public areas, cameras must be adjusted at proper angles to include only the designated area — that means no direct views of anything not deemed necessary for surveillance.

There are expectations of periodic audits and ongoing assessments if the cameras are still needed in the area.

If recorded information reveals no incident, then a standard schedule will be established to erase the recording.

[toggle title=”Timeline of sexual assault developments at UBC”]

April 19 – A 36-year-old woman entering a building on Larkin Road was assaulted by a man at 10:35 p.m.

May 19 – A 20-year-old woman was groped from behind while walking along Wesbrook Mall, close to Thunderbird Blvd.

Sept. 28 – A 19-year-old woman was approached by a man along Biological Science Road and taken to a garden area and groped.

Oct. 13 – A 20-year-old woman returned to her apartment on Fairview Crescent and was shocked to find a man following her from the stairwell. The man attempted to take off her coat while groping her under her skirt.

Oct. 19 – A 17-year-old woman was assaulted while walking from Totem Park residence to Place Vanier residence. A man attempted to drag her into a wooded area, ripped her clothing under her skirt, and punched her in the face.

Oct. 21 – The university extended the hours of its student-run foot patrol program, Safewalk, from 2 a.m.tol 4 a.m. and added a vehicle service.
– The RCMP announced that its major crime unit would investigate UBC sexual assault cases.

Oct. 27 – Last reported sexual assault incident, where a woman was grabbed from behind just before 1:30 a.m. while walking on Student Union Boulevard from Gage Hall. She escaped unharmed after waving her arms and screaming.

[/toggle]

In spite of those protections, some students feel uneasy about surveillance.

Benjamin Blumer, a master’s student studying mechanical engineering who lives on campus, says his main concern is privacy for students who call UBC home. He respects Toope’s decision to not make any rash decisions despite the fact that other universities have had CCTV for years.

“Perhaps the decision-makers understand that ‘other people are doing it’ isn’t an acceptable reason for anything,” he said.

The price of surveillance                                       

In addition to privacy concerns, there’s also the looming cost factor for a potential surveillance system.

Jonnie Graham, the sales coordinator for Radius Security, a company that provides CCTV camera systems across metro Vancouver, said they’re expensive.

“The cost ranges from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand dollars per camera,” he said, stating that it depends on whether the technology is wireless or not.

Graham wouldn’t comment on UBC’s situation directly, but he did say that Radius has assisted two other Vancouver campuses with surveillance-camera technology.

As new video-analytics technology becomes popular, Graham said that video cameras are at the height of their accuracy, notifying the guard immediately of suspicious figures.

An ongoing debate

With a report on security due in December, more information about UBC and its view on surveillance cameras is on the horizon.

For now, issues of privacy and security have been heavily reported on this year on campus.

In a recent article from student-run newspaper The Ubyssey, it was revealed that the RCMP is using new software to compile photos of licence plates to keep track of parking violations.

That has provoked complaints about excessive surveillance and demonstrated that people on campus are very uncomfortable about the idea of cameras.

Students like Higgins don’t support cameras for minor problems.

“I feel like it’s more of a privacy breach with the parking […] because towing and tickets are not really a massive crime,” said Higgins.

In the end, she believes that the university should invest its money on a security system to prevent serious assaults, despite the potential privacy concerns.

“That makes a lot more sense to me than watching people’s cars.”