Smart cameras have no place on campus: take them down
Surveillance technology undermines academic values of freedom and autonomy, nine concerned scolars write. Instead of turning the smart cameras back on again, the board should remove them.
Tuesday 17 January 2023
Photo by Taco van der Eb

On January 12, Mare revealed that the Executive Board intends to switch the surveillance cameras they bought for monitoring classroom occupation back on. In the article, the vice-chair of the board is quoted saying that privacy is now secured and the board is fine with the remaining risks of use.

The University Council’s advice on this matter is important… unless it is negative, in which case it will have to be “weighed” on its merits. These seemingly soothing words disguise the fact that none of this has been put to those who use the classrooms, i.e., the people who are going to be monitored, counted and surveilled.

Our core objection is this: The use of smart cameras and surveillance technology in universities undermines the academic values of freedom and autonomy. It sends the message to students and staff that they are not trusted and must be constantly supervised. From the perspective of students and staff, the use of these technologies can have a chilling and repressing effect. It exacerbates feelings of insecurity for all, but especially for those (historically) most vulnerable and for those with first hand experience of authoritarian regimes.

Real danger

"Function creep" is also a real danger. Surveillance technology is often implemented with initially-limited functionality, but eventually extended to make fuller use of technological capacities. As the University Services Department themselves admitted, the cameras’ functionality could be extended by university management in the future, if they wished. Were that to happen, they would have at their immediate disposal hundreds of powerful AI-powered minicomputers with 3D cameras that have the ability to track where students and staff walk, what gender they are, and even where they look.

The slogan of Xovis, the company that makes these cameras, is ‘Way more than people counting!’ for a reason. (And here we are not even raising the concern of the system being hacked, for these risks are now supposedly deemed acceptable.)

The strategy of delaying an unpopular measure or policy until the unrest has died down, is deeply cynical and undemocratic

When Mare first reported the secretive installation of hundreds of smart cameras in November 2021 and their serious security gaps, resistance from students and faculty was immediate and massive. Students organized protests and over 1800 signed a student-initiated petition calling for the cameras to be taken down. Moreover, 170 staff of the Faculty of Social Sciences sent a letter of concern to Dean Paul Wouters leading to expressions of concern from members of Parliament and then Minister of Education, Ingrid van Engelshoven, “raising her eyebrows” at the news.

In response to the outrage, the Executive Board turned the cameras off and promised to further investigate the security risks. They also promised to talk to those concerned and to listen to the objections. The first is now done and the Board explicitly considers the remaining security and privacy concerns acceptable.

No broader debate

Yet, a real conversation with the many concerned has not taken place. A symposium was held under the title: “Technology and privacy: trust or mistrust?”, but that symposium was only indirectly about the question at hand. Over the course of the past 1,5 years, there was no broader debate on the desirability of using such invasive surveillance technology at Leiden University.

The governance strategy of delaying an unpopular measure or policy until the unrest has died down, is deeply cynical and undemocratic. The Board decided to turn the cameras off in the face of massive opposition. Now they are speeding through the process of concertation. The University Council is already expected to vote on the matter on January the 30th, with a decision in the Executive Board two weeks later. Last September, Leiden University spokesperson Caroline van Overbeeke said that what mattered was not only the legal aspects of privacy law but also privacy as experienced by students and staff. The Board’s actions undermine this sentiment.

As this rushed attempt to turn the cameras back on shows–as much as the catastrophic roll-out of these cameras in 2021–surveillance technologies are often implemented without adequate input or consent from the community they are being used to monitor. Installing intelligent camera systems and surveillance technology in universities without the informed consent of the community shows a complete disregard for the privacy and autonomy of students and staff. This lack of transparency and consultation makes it clear that the Executive Board does not value the opinions and concerns of the wider university community. Students and staff who will be most affected by the use of these technologies should be the ones to make the decision about whether or not to implement them.

Buying a Ferrari to do the groceries

Fundamentally, the Executive Board has still never made the case for why this top-of-the-line smart camera system with incredible functionalities is necessary and proportionate. Installing them to use them only to count people is like buying a Ferrari to do the groceries. Why use simpler means that do not have these functionalities? Even if certain options are not turned on initially, their enormous potential is part of the package: The university should instead opt for privacy by design.

As a community, we reject the use of intelligent camera systems and surveillance technologies. We call on the University Council to likewise reject their use on campus. Smart cameras are, to use the words of MP Peter Kwint, “a solution in search of a problem”. The cameras are incompatible with the academic values of freedom and autonomy and undermine our right to privacy. They make a mockery of Leiden University’s motto Praesidium Libertatis.

Instead, we must work to create a culture of trust and respect and an environment in which students and staff feel free to express themselves and engage in open dialogue without fear of being monitored.

Take them down!

Alex Brandsen, Remco Breuker, Leila Demarest, Petr Kopecky, Andrew Littlejohn, Hilde van Meegdenburg, Francesco Ragazzi, Tom Theuns and Elmer Veldkamp are scientists at Leiden University