On Penn State’s campus, thousands of security cameras are watching

Story posted April 22, 2014 in Best of CommMedia by Cate Hansberry.

UNIVERSITY PARK -- Walking through Penn State’s HUB-Robeson Center, mechanical engineering student Rebecca Schmiedel didn't think about the security cameras watching her.

"I kind of figured they were there, but I never looked for them," she said.

Yet in most public areas on the expansive campus, a security camera is always watching.

In fact, some 2,000 cameras are always watching.

“I know there are lots of people who are going to think, ‘We’re being watched by Big Brother,’ ” Paul Ruskin said. “Society changes with technology all the time. This is new technology giving our campus the opportunity to be a safer campus.”

Ruskin is the business operations coordinator at the Penn State Office of Physical Plant. Students “should be assured that when they come to University Park they can focus on their academic studies,” he said, “and they don’t have to be concerned about being safe.”

Penn State’s Commonwealth Campuses began installing security cameras in residence halls in 1995, according to a Penn State press release. Since then, installing cameras has become standard at University Park.

Ryan Morgan, information technology consultant at Penn State, said a project begun this year involves installing an additional 422 cameras by May.

They are being put in 60 residence hall and commons buildings to monitor ground-floor entrance lobbies, exit stairwells, elevators and commons service desks, according to a Penn State press release. The estimated cost for the project is $1.4 million, the announcement said.

Ruskin said cameras have proven so useful that they now will be automatically included in the budgets for all new buildings and renovations. 

The intent in using cameras is to prevent crime from happening, rather than just using them to catch criminals, Ruskin said. 

“If the public knows there are cameras in the area, it should have them think twice about doing anything improper,” he said.

Morgan said a decal is posted on each residence hall door saying that the area may be under surveillance.

 Elsewhere, specific camera locations on campus are not explicitly identified with signs or notices because the cameras, although small, are visible-- usually white, circular units with a bubble in the center, mounted on a wall or ceiling.

“The general rule is that if you can’t see a camera, it’s not there,” Ruskin said.

Cameras also can be used as an event-management tool, he said. They are capable of monitoring large crowds and can pick out suspicious movements.

They are able to detect, for example, a car going the wrong direction on a one-way street, and can detect even small things like stray animals.

Ruskin said cameras can pick up things a police officer may not ordinarily notice.

“It is a force multiplier for police. This campus has 946 buildings on it. As good a police force as we have, we don’t have one person per building,” Ruskin said.

However, Campus Police Chief Tyrone Parham said live monitoring is rarely done

 “Video can be retrieved if we have a specific reason to investigate a crime,” he said.

Facilities for large crowds, such as the Intramural Building, White Building, Rec Hall and Bryce Jordan Center, have cameras, as do some high-traffic classroom buildings such as Willard and Thomas.

“If you take a walk through many of our athletic and auditorium facilities, you'll quickly see cameras in many of them,” Parham said.

He said there are also noticeable cameras in and outside of Old Main.

In the event of an emergency, Parham said the police department’s staff has the capability of monitoring from the Police Dispatch Center. In some cases, video can be viewed or retrieved from the specific facility where the cameras are located.

Police also can monitor video feeds at computer workstations at the OPP Physical Security offices, Ruskin said.

Since the cameras are not typically live-monitored, the camera images are fed into computers. Images are stored on digital video recorders for a minimum of 30 days. They may be kept longer, Ruskin said, but are usually deleted after the 30 days.

Access to these images is limited, according to Ruskin. Only individuals with substantial justification and authorization have regular access to the feed, such as campus police or a detective conducting an investigation, he said.

Ruskin said detectives requesting access to the video are vetted by university police and the physical security unit in OPP.

There also are rules about camera placement and monitoring, Ruskin said.  “The cameras are not allowed in any living spaces, in any office areas or bathrooms. The public has a reasonable expectation of privacy and that is respected.”

Public areas for camera surveillance include building entrances and hallways, outdoor areas where events are held, stadiums and athletic event areas.

Any laboratory on campus that is working with hazardous nuclear, biological or chemical materials is likely to have cameras as well.

The exception to the rule that a camera is only there if it is seen is the use of temporary, hidden cameras placed by police to conduct an investigation.  

The types of cameras at University Park vary, Ruskin said. Some are locked down to one angle while others can be remotely controlled and can zoom in and out as well as move.

Some also can automatically track movement through computer control.

For example, a camera recording in an empty parking garage in the middle of the night might be able to detect and track suspicious movement. Police can later ask the computer to recall footage from the specific time when the camera detected the movement, Ruskin said.   

Areas not covered by cameras are quickly becoming nonexistent at University Park.

“We are about one-fourth through the project, with Pollock, Eastview and White Course nearly complete,” Morgan said of the residence halls camera installations.

Forty-five cameras already are installed in several of South Hall’s newly renovated dormitories.  Cameras also will be put in East, West, North and the remaining buildings in South.

Not all students are aware of the project or even the existence of the cameras. New students are not explicitly told about them when they arrive, freshman Cecelia Bashaw said.

She said she had no idea new cameras were being installed, although she thinks they are a good way to keep students safe as long as they do not invade privacy.

“I have not noticed them or felt they were there,” Bashaw said. “This is news to me.”

(This story first appeared in the Centre Daily Times, April 21, 2014)