Next time you are walking through Occidental’s campus, take a few minutes to observe your surroundings. Look up at the beautiful foliage and the intricately designed buildings. Perhaps if you look closely enough, you will see a tiny lens inside a little black box pointing in your direction. These little contraptions are surveillance cameras, and they are watching you all over campus.
Some degree of surveillance on any college campus is to be expected. Most students are fully aware that there are cameras in Occidental’s dining facilities; those who have been caught swiping Naked Juices from the Marketplace are perhaps especially aware of this fact.
Less obvious are the approximately 120 cameras placed virtually everywhere on school grounds. To be exact, Campus Safety has placed surveillance devices outside all the academic buildings, outside all administrative buildings, outside all residence halls, in the Academic Quad, outside the gym and in Alumni Circle, according to Director of Campus Safety Victor Clay.
It is fairly easy to understand the reasoning behind all of these cameras—Occidental has an open campus located in one of the largest cities in America. According to Clay, Occidental’s surveillance system allows Campus Safety to see many areas which are accessible to the public and are therefore should be patrolled.
Because campus safety cannot have officers everywhere, cameras play a valuable role in ensuring student safety. But Occidental’s system of monitoring campus identification card use is somewhat less easy to understand. The school’s card office can track whenever someone swipes his or her card on campus, to enter a building and to purchase food.
While I fully recognize the importance of monitoring school grounds to some degree, I cannot help but find the presence of such elaborate surveillance systems to be slightly creepy. Art History major Briana Sintzun (senior) shares this sentiment.
Sintzun is completing her senior comprehensive project on Michel Foucalt’s theory of Panopticism—a classic prison design allowing for omnipresent surveillance—and its relation to Occidental. She observes that in addition to the presence of cameras in so many campus areas, most of the buildings are tall and provide several undetectable vantage points of the people below.
While I’m not suggesting that Campus Safety or the Information Technology department are closely monitoring any single student’s activities, it is hard to deny that Occidental’s surveillance habits undermine our privacy as students.
The disregard of individual privacy is not something that is limited to Occidental—in fact, this is an issue all Americans are dealing with.
It is old news that the National Security Agency (NSA) is now able to obtain records of phone calls, emails, text messages and individual internet history. Last year, the NSA also admitted to collecting personal contact lists from millions of Americans, according to the Washington Post.
More recently, hackers who managed to infiltrate Apple’s iCloud system leaked nude photos of hundreds of celebrities. Embarrassing photos sent as supposedly ephemeral Snapchats are now being released across the internet.
What is most unsettling about all of these blatant intrusions is that people hardly seem to be bothered by them anymore. We are so used to data leaks, stolen information and constant surveillance that we have become desensitized to the degradation of individual privacy.
Surveillance practices in this country have become excessive. Some degree of surveillance on Occidental’s campus and of Americans’ activity generally plays a valuable role in keeping us safe. Yet too much of it is both divisive in nature and a glaring invasion of privacy—something we have precious little of these days as it is.
The bottom of the NSA’s website reads, “If you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear.” Call me paranoid, but I would like to have nothing to fear in private.