The university installed the controversial smart cameras as a practical solution during the Covid-19 crisis, but wanted to continue using them after the pandemic. Little attention was paid to privacy or the further capabilities of the cameras. Advice given by data protection officers was not taken into account.
This is evident from documents that the university has published on its website in response to two requests under the Government Freedom of Information Act.
For example, the University Services Department started a pilot project for the cameras before the privacy officer had been fully informed. The required processing agreement, which includes clauses on security and privacy, was signed without first waiting for the advice of the data protection officers.
Moreover, the Services Department soon began using the cameras for purposes other than enforcing the social distancing rule, which was the reason they were initially installed.
There was no discussion about the safety and proportionality of the systems. The Services Department was not transparent in its response to critical questions about the capabilities of the cameras, such as the estimation of age and gender, and face mask detection.
#Cameragate: the reconstruction
It is 2020, and everything is uncertain. The pandemic has paralysed the country, and the university is closed. In June, the university plans to reopen on a limited basis, but visitors will have to register, and that turns out to be a major problem. People do not fill out the forms, there is concern about queues, and sometimes the porters have to spend hours entering the data.
The University Services Department would prefer to automate this process because in September, students will start attending again. At least, that is the assumption at the time.
Equipping all the buildings with entry gates that can be opened with a LU-Card is not a solution, states a memo. ‘The practical feasibility in relation to the cost is ‘uncertain’. There are too many entrances, which means that the figures would not be accurate enough. That is why the Services Department proposes to install ‘counting motion cameras’, ‘a more effective tool, at much lower cost’, which does not depend on ‘the willingness of students and employees to register’.
These would be clever ‘devices that do not record people on camera but use intelligent software to convert camera images into data on the incoming and outgoing flows of people’.
The documents show that the Services Department already had plans for an extended sensor system before the pandemic. In a PowerPoint presentation called ‘Stichthage 2019’, there are plans for ‘continuous occupancy monitoring’, with ‘smart tools’ and ‘sensor technology’.
When the Services Department wants to start a pilot project at the science faculty at the end 0f 2020, Executive director Dirkje Schinkelshoek responds with criticism. She asks Information manager Johan Detollenaere for advice and he has some ‘reservations’, she e-mails. ‘It’s not clear which technology is used: where exactly are the images converted into silhouettes, what happens to the sensor data, etc.?’
And: ‘Earlier this year, a similar system for the bicycle parking facilities was rejected.’
The Services Department replies that the privacy officers were involved, and this seems to dispel the doubts. But at that point, the privacy officer in question, Astrid Gravenbeek, was still waiting for information on which system the Services Department wanted to use: Xovis cameras, using StoreScan as the supplier. ‘As long as it cannot be used to identify individuals, there is no need for a processing agreement’, was her first advice.
However, once she had taken a look at the system, she changed her advice. On 6 August, the same day she accepts StoreScan’s quotation, she receives the information. A few days later, she e-mails that the system does in fact process personal data. ‘According to StoreScan’s description, the system stores personal data, however briefly, and then anonymises it. Because the system stores personal data, a processing agreement must be signed, a privacy statement must be drawn up and a sign must be put up stating that there is a people counting system’, she writes on 10 August.
The signs were never put up: ‘It was unintentional that this recommendation was not adopted’, says university spokesperson Caroline van Overbeeke, when asked.
The processing agreement, however, was drawn up, and on 11 August, Gravenbeek writes that she wants corporate privacy officer Wim Keuvelaar to have a look at it as well. Unfortunately, he is absent for another week and will be back on 17 August, the exact week the Services Department wants to install the scanners, according to an e-mail to supplier StoreScan. ‘So drilling some holes is not a major problem at this point.’ This would be more difficult the week after.
On 18 August, the Deputy Director of the University Services Department signs the processing agreement without waiting for the advice of the data protection officers. This advice was received on the 19th, including some changes and critical questions from Keuvelaar. Among other things, he suggests giving careful consideration to how the employees and students should be informed. ‘There is no way for those involved to know what those boxes are recording.’
He also asks why the Services Department does not opt for a simpler system, such as infrared scanners that do not process personal data at all. The Services Department argues that, because of Covid, it is important to be as accurate as possible and that infrared sensors are insufficient.
The installation has already started. When the project leader sends an e-mail to Keuvelaar on 25 August: ‘So I understand that the content is approved?’, the signature has already been on the agreement for a week.
According to Van Overbeeke, the data protection officer’s comments were definitely taken into account in the agreement and the signatory ‘erroneously kept the date of 18 August 2020’. The e-mail of 25 August is ‘an unnecessary double check after the signing’.
Privacy officer Keuvelaar also wants to know whether the system will remain in place after the pandemic. There is no clear answer: ‘That is still unclear. I can imagine that an update of the agreement will be necessary in due course. For now, we are still in the middle of a crisis and this is what we are using it for.’
After two months, it has become clear that the Services Department wants to continue using the system after the Covid-19 crisis and to expand it. Cameras have to be installed above every lecture hall, and this requires 300,000 euros. This is the only amount in the released documents that has not been blacked out. According to the university, one camera costs 600 euros. 371 cameras were purchased.
In a letter to the Executive Board, the Services Department does describe the possible applications of the cameras. ‘The fact that we have access to a dashboard that was developed to provide important management information for each building has got us thinking about a broader application within the buildings.’
With an ‘automated counting system’, the Services Department can ‘monitor the occupancy and use of classrooms at any time of the year and at any moment of the day. This means we can gather management information on a structural basis and respond immediately if necessary.’
At that point, the cameras that are already in place are not just used to maintain a safe occupancy rate anymore: the Services Department uses it to adjust the cleaning schedules and opening hours according to the measured occupancy.
There is not a word about Covid in the proposal. However, when the plans are shared with the University Council, the pandemic is used as a reason to speed up the approval process. The Council learns about the cameras on October 30, at which point they have been installed for two months.
‘Why weren’t we informed about this?’ asks staff party FNV in surprise. According to the Services Department, the subject was discussed ‘informally’ in early October, but apart from that, the Council had not heard anything about the cameras. The Council is frustrated by the lack of transparency about the devices. ‘There is no reason not to be transparent’, replies the Services Department.
The Council is concerned about privacy. The Services Department replies that the cameras ‘only register a person’s silhouette’ and that privacy is guaranteed. This information is incorrect. Although the system processes the images into contours, the cameras first have to record regular video footage to do so.
The university denies that the Council was misinformed. ‘We believe that the University Council was fully informed about this’, says spokesperson Van Overbeeke. ‘In retrospect, it might have been desirable to describe the specific procedure used to convert images in the device into key indicators in 0.2 seconds.’
The University Council also does not receive any information about the cameras’ capabilities, the artificial intelligence in the devices and how the privacy levels are guaranteed.
In the following months, the cameras are installed. At the start of the new academic year 2021-2022, they are all in place. The pandemic rages on, but the university is allowed to open again – to some extent. A few managers suddenly receive an e-mail from the Services Department saying that there are too many people in the lecture hall for a certain course. They had seen this on the counting cameras. One of the managers says that they will talk to the lecturer about it. Sorry, says the Services Department employee in question: ‘This whole thing feels like policing, I hope we can get rid of the maximum numbers soon.’
Only a small number of emails show that the Services Department used the system to actually enforce Covid rules, as the rules for the maximum group size have only been in effect for a short time. First from early September until the 25th, then from mid-November until mid-December, and finally from the end of January 2022 until now. There are no documents to indicate that the system further contributed to the enforcement of the Covid measures.
This article was written with the cooperation of Emiel Beinema
Rectification: An earlier version of this article mentioned plans for a camera system in 2019. This should be a sensor system. The plans in question mention 'sensor techniques' and 'smart visualisations'.