Calling off the cameras
University of Nevada, Reno President John Lilley has discontinued the installation of new surveillance cameras on campus and ordered old ones shut off.
Lilley announced his actions after a request from the Faculty Senate, but he said he had acted before the senate request.
Beginning with a $598,000 federal grant awarded in December 2003, the University of Nevada, Reno joined many other colleges and universities across the country by installing “homeland security” cameras focused on laboratories to prevent break-ins or tampering. The system was completed in February 2005.
“Homeland security cameras are placed only in public areas, such as hallways, where there would be no expectation of privacy,” Jane Tors, UNR executive director of public relations, said. “[They] are visible, in plain view. It is not a surreptitious system. There is no remote zoom-in, zoom-out capability for these cameras.”
Tors said she distinguishes between the university’s cameras—which she says are not concealed—and those installed by the Reno Police Department for criminal investigations. Confusion between the two prompted the Faculty Senate request. The cameras will remain shut down and no new cameras installed until university policies on surveillance cameras can be reviewed. The only exception is for cameras monitoring high-risk materials.
“Our goal is to strike the appropriate balance between our obligation to protect the personal safety and security of our people, research and buildings with the privacy concerns of our faculty and staff,” Lilley stated in the announcement posted on April 29.
Jim Richardson, lobbyist for the Nevada Faculty Alliance, said he is concerned that professors at UNR are being watched. He concedes the cameras serve a security purpose but says they are also an invasion of privacy—and one carries greater weight than the other.
“But interest in some vague security threat seems to me [a] major motivator in what has happened so far on this issue,” Richardson said. “This is an insufficient ground for having cameras all over the place on a university campus.”
Since December 2004, two security reports have been made in the Agriculture Building. One, by Professor Hussein Hussein, reported that his lab was tampered with. The other was made by an unnamed professor who said a swastika was painted on Hussein’s door. However, he washed the symbol off before reporting it. Both of these reports are still under investigation.
The Reno Police Department responded to the swastika allegation by installing a “hidden surveillance camera inside a mock smoke detector in a public hallway outside Hussein’s laboratory/office.” This lab camera was approved by President Lilley.
The camera later recorded Hussein, two private investigators and a Reno Gazette-Journal photographer fiddling with the hidden camera. After Hussein is first seen on camera, one of the private investigators is then seen carrying a ladder. Then the camera lens drops, facing directly down, according to a factual summary made by Nevada Attorney General Brian Sandoval: “With the camera facing straight down, it now captures no images, effectively disabling its usefulness in UNRPD’s investigation.”
Hussein didn’t know the surveillance camera was being installed as part of an investigation. According to Sandoval’s office, installation of the hidden cameras was lawful, and Hussein’s alleged disabling of the camera was also lawful. There wasn’t enough evidence to prove that the investigator or Hussein knew about the camera or intentionally dislodged it.
After researching the swastika incident, “The Anti-Defamation league believes that University Police Services and its staff have followed proper law-enforcement standards during the course of this investigation,” Anti-Defamation League spokesperson Cynthia Luria said.
“Our university is firmly committed to maintaining a safe environment for students, faculty and staff, and this commitment is the cornerstone of our security systems and procedures,” Tors said.