Imagine this: it’s early on a Sunday morning, and the sun is streaming in the window. It’s obnoxiously bright, and rouses you from your slumber; entangled up in a bed that isn’t yours. Who is that person snoring beside you? Where on earth are you? And why does your head hurt so much? You climb gingerly out of bed, trying not to awaken your bedmate, and stumble out the front door into the muggy North Dunedin air. What’s that you see, pointed directly at your face? Is that video surveillance? Are they onto you? Is...is...Big Brother watching you?
The issue of CCTV surveillance is obviously one we should all be considering, least of all because you might be startled one Sunday morning in an inebriated and sorry state.
In May this year, Critic reported that the University of Otago will be installing sixty surveillance cameras on power poles across the street corners of North Dunedin over the next two years; meaning that when you come back to university in February, the suburb will be subtly, yet significantly, different. “The goal,” University of Otago Vice Chancellor Harlene Hayne said earlier this year, “is to keep our community safe ... We need to do something about non-students committing crime in our area.” Phase one of the implementation will include notorious ‘scarfie’ streets such as Castle, Leith, Dundas, Grange, Frederick, and Albany, with the intention being to supplement existing university efforts to reduce crime in the area. The 400 cameras they currently have adorning university buildings and lampposts throughout campus, not to mention the introduction of Campus Watch over a decade ago, have been vital in combating such criminality, but some see this plan as a step too far; an extension of authority beyond university’s jurisdiction.
What began as a solitary camera mounted on the university’s Property Services Building on Albany Street to monitor Hyde Street will become what will possibly be the most surveilled suburb in New Zealand. This is not necessarily inherently bad, but it should give students cause for concern about whether this avenue is the correct one to take in order to address the issues the university is primarily concerned about. Following the installation of that Hyde Street camera, Deputy Proctor Andrew Ferguson said, “The frequency of fire lighting in Hyde St is, as a consequence, well down on the previous year due to this camera’s preventative effect alone. We were also recently able to positively assist Police over the alleged theft of a bike in this street.” Critic ran a news story on the Hyde Street plan in March last year. Since then, there has been a “long hiatus during most of 2016 when the plan was investigated further,” according to one university spokesperson. What has happened since then is a presentation to the Vice Chancellor’s Advisory group, a University Council meeting - which included OUSA representation, and a student forum in July, in which a lack of publicity contributed to only about 20 students being present to discuss their thoughts and concerns. As a result of this lack of exposure on the plan, the OUSA Referendum question on whether the association should oppose the CCTV monitoring of North Dunedin constituted essentially 3702 students casting a vote on a plan they had little idea about.
51.22 percent of voters in that referendum thought OUSA should oppose the CCTV plans, and 48.78 percent said that they shouldn’t. Moreover, 98 submissions were received from the student body during the formal consultation period; 57 were in favour of CCTV plans (if they were for safety and crime prevention only), 34 submissions opposed the proposal, and the remaining seven took no firm stance on the issue. It’s fair to say that the university and OUSA tried to engage the student body, disseminating information about the proposal via email, social media, and electronic and print advertising. The university also met separately with the OUSA Executive and Te Roopū Māori to answer questions. It’s an unfortunate reality that relatively few university students here at Otago actually vote in elections and referendums; only about 20 percent of the student body voted in the recent OUSA election. It’s just not good enough. These issues - CCTV surveillance, OUSA budget decisions, amendments to the constitution and the like - affect all of us, and we have a responsibility to exercise our democratic right. It remains to be seen whether the student feedback will have any positive impact on the university’s ultimate decision. We are not holding our breath.
Much has been said about the current OUSA Executive’s silence on important issues affecting the student body. Thus it comes as no surprise that Hugh Baird has not been vocal on the issue. In 2015, the OUSA president Paul Hunt said that “[OUSA] do not support surveillance in North Dunedin. Often, you can’t actually use CCTV footage to prosecute [offenders]. It’s very difficult to catch an arsonist when they operate in enclosed spaces.” He went on to add: “What the research shows on CCTV is that at the very start of its implementation you might have a very small deterrence effect. But then after that point, the benefits become negligible and people who want to deliberately commit crimes go elsewhere.” Last year, President Laura Harris could not be reached for comment on the issue. A member of that year’s OUSA executive said that “a number of executive members [did] not feel comfortable” with Laura’s “cop out” policy, going onto say that “pointing cameras down streets is not ok”. So what does next year’s OUSA Executive think? According to President-elect Caitlin Barlow, “It feels backhanded … for the university to run the cameras when [they] will still have to go to the police for non-student offenders”. Barlow does concede that there are pros to this plan; “safety at night, especially for females”. She also agrees that “The university and OUSA tried, but a lot more could have been done. We don’t think students realise how much it could affect their lives or the next generation of students’ lives. Although it was a massive issue that was poorly executed for student consultation, the university is now putting together a student consultation framework so it goes better next time.”
It would be disingenuous to depict the university’s CCTV plans in Orwellian terms; painting the university as a nefarious Big Brother figure, hell-bent on manipulating and controlling the scarfie population via telescreens, newspeak and the ‘Thought Police’. There are tangible benefits to CCTV surveillance; as Mayor David Cull says, “they are a legitimate safety measure”. For starters, CCTV cameras can deter criminal activity. Just like seeing a mounted alarm system or a slavering pitbull in the front yard, an intruder seeing cameras might decide that it’s simply easier to target another house. Various studies have been conducted to monitor the efficacy of CCTV surveillance. One study found that using CCTV in car parks resulted in a 51 percent decrease in crime; in public transportation areas a 23 percent decrease in crime; and in public settings, a 7 percent decrease in crime. North Dunedin isn’t wholly composed of car parks. The pilot CCTV project that was run by the university on Hyde Street recorded a number of incidents, including, “a serious physical and unprovoked attack on a student walking along the street, the theft of a student’s bike, damage to and theft of vehicles and an arson”. A camera on Abbey College also proved useful in solving crimes committed against students. Another advantage is that CCTV can enable the police to identify thieves or perpetrators in the event of an assault. Obviously this can’t and won’t prevent the crime from occurring in the first place, but increased surveillance can lead to justice being enacted. Moreover, CCTV offers evidence for insurance claims in the case of theft or vandalism. As the vice chancellor says, “The CCTV initiative is about protecting students and their property”. Student properties, despite superficial appearances, tend to contain a lot of valuable belongings - laptops, phones, sound gear and the like. It’s not surprising to hear non-students frequently target our flats. Finally, CCTV surveillance might provide people with an increased sense of security and reassurance.
There is also prominent evidence to suggest that CCTV cameras aren’t as effective as they’re often made out. Deputy Proctor Andrew Ferguson claims that “it is well documented in many cities that CCTV succeeds as a deterrent,” but is this really the case? Students, in particular female students, feel most reassured when Campus Watch are nearby while on their walk home from town or the library through campus after a late night. Being a method of addressing criminality that is predominantly retrospective as opposed to preventative, CCTV cameras provide few safeguards in the moment for those worrying or dangerous encounters. A United Kingdom Home Office Study in 2005 found that areas with a high density of cameras, as North Dunedin will be, do not necessarily produce a greater reduction in crime. The university often disputes these findings, claiming the unique nature of North Dunedin because of the density of its student population. Often deterrence isn’t even the most sought after consequence for those installing CCTV. Ferguson has said on two separate occasions that he hopes the cameras will be effective in dispersing crime to North Dunedin’s surrounding suburbs. When we put that aim to Mayor Cull, he told us “Crime isn’t something that is set at a certain level and then gets dispersed evenly; you hope it doesn’t happen at all.” However, when you’re spending $1.27 million (and ongoing maintenance) on the surveillance expansion, it needs to impact on the level of crimes committed in North Dunedin. We will have to wait and see how ‘unique’ the suburb is, and whether it will ultimately turn out to be a wise investment.
By installing the cameras to crack down on criminality in North Dunedin, there will inevitably be unintended consequences. New Zealand Council of Civil Liberties Media Spokesperson Thomas Beagle told Critic that having numerous cameras in an area worried him greatly because “people behave differently when they’re being watched”. Despite several assurances from the university that “for residents and people not doing anything unlawful or harmful to others [there is] nothing to worry about”, with the appointment of a new Vice Chancellor and new faces on the University Council also comes the possibility of a change of focus in that regard, and that could be problematic to these statements, no matter how sincere they are. As mentioned earlier, the initiatives the university has employed to ensure student safety and combat criminality have had a substantial impact. Yet according to Dunedin Mayor Dave Cull, who has backed the plan, students need more protections. When interviewed earlier in the year he was not delicate in his descriptions of these non-student perpetrators. “There have been occasions”, he explained, “where, for want of a better term, bogans, or frankly trash, have been attracted into the area over the last ten years and that didn’t happen before. And it’s a real concern.” Beyond the worry of our Mayor referring to members of our community in such terms, the ‘town vs. gown’ dynamic he refers to has existed for several decades. He kept coming back to the recruitment of domestic and, particularly, international students, as well as the reputational risks that factor into that effort. So is this an elaborate plan to access a larger share of the international student market to boost profit? Or perhaps a crackdown on student culture? Despite dozens of staff members believing that the university’s upper management are that malicious for separate reasons, it’s highly unlikely that this is the case. The intentions are good, but the execution has been poor.
There are serious concerns over the use and monitoring of the footage gathered. As with any technology or means of surveillance, there is always the potential for misuse. Who will have access to this footage, and how will it be used? The Deputy Proctor Andy Ferguson has reassured us that “for residents and people not doing anything unlawful or harmful to others” there is “nothing to worry about”. That’s all well and good, but what are the safeguards used to protect the images? How long will the recorded material be stored before deletion? We believe Professor Hayne’s statement that the CCTV cameras will not be utilised “as some sort of punitive tool against (non-criminal) student behaviour. What’s to prevent these cameras being used for more disciplinary actions further down the line? For example, in the UK, police authorities are able to employ sophisticated algorithms to predict crime before it happens, and use loudspeakers wired to CCTV cameras to communicate with those in their proximity. Training programmes should be implemented for people watching the CCTV cameras, so they know what to look out for. Students should be able to make information access requests. There is also the issue of privacy. According to University of Otago Dean of Law Professor Mark Henaghan, while cameras are allowed to be installed in public spaces, there could be an issue of legality if they were to breach the privacy of people’s homes. CCTV plans need to ensure that cameras do not point straight into someone’s bedroom. Most students would likely support the proposal as long as the University acts to ensure that privacy is protected and student concerns are addressed.
We need to invest in initiatives that develop a positive and vibrant student culture, one that values participation, care, and safe fun. New Zealand has an awful binge drinking culture, and it is important that the availability of cheap alcohol is controlled. The expense of alcohol in bars and nightclubs is what drives people to the liquor stores and preloading at flat parties. A regulated bar on campus, in addition to Re:Fuel would ensure that students could expend their energy and enjoy a drink in a safe and regulated environment. OUSA and the university have the ability to encourage a positive drinking culture that doesn’t lead to alcohol-fuelled brawls, assaults, and accidents.
As Hayne mentioned, when Campus Watch was introduced many years ago, “some staff and students were initially suspicious about the university’s intention”. However “this service is now one of the most highly rated initiatives we have at Otago”. Expanding the ranks of Campus Watch is a fantastic preventative measure. Students feel much safer making their way home in the dark North Dunedin streets armed with the knowledge that Campus Watch is there with them, every step of the way. Cameras won’t walk you home at night. OUSA President-elect Caitlin Barlow agrees: “I would have preferred to see more Campus Watch”, also addressing the fact that “some students think you will get in trouble if you ask Campus Watch for help, which is a stereotype that needs to be changed. Another idea would be to have the emergency buttons to go for more of a proactive approach rather than reactionary.”
A common criticism of CCTV is that it resembles what should be a final resort; an ambulance at the bottom of the cliff approach. Instead of having cameras to record our public movements whether a suspect or not, why not attempt to address the source of the problem: alcohol? To her credit, Hayne has been opposing the opening of new liquor stores in North Dunedin recently, in the knowledge that every extra store that opens contributes to a 3-4 percent rise in alcohol-related harm. A change in student drinking culture may mitigate the problem of non-students taking advantage of certain events or nights of the week where a larger proportion of the student body are drinking, whether at their property or elsewhere. Alcohol abuse is common among university students, but more to the point it is a problem that New Zealand seriously struggles with. Awareness programmes can be effective at breaking the trend of this abuse, as we have seen on the nationwide scale, but just like surveillance, these initiatives don’t come cheap.
Obviously, further work is required to guarantee that the CCTV policy is clear and transparent to students. The university also needs to ensure that the use of these CCTV cameras meets the Privacy Act 1993. We would also recommend that extensive signage be placed around the surveilled area so that passersby and residents know that they are being recorded. OUSA needs to be more vocal and communicative on this issue; they should learn from the complacency of the current executive. Has a cost/benefit analysis been conducted to show increased CCTV surveillance is the most cost-effective measure against crime in this area? Should students able to request specific blackout areas?
Regardless of what the university ultimately decides, it is imperative that the finalised proposal is well communicated to the student body. We have the right to know who will be running the cameras, and what the consequences of defying the CCTV policies will be. Is the university overstepping its authority by monitoring students and citizens off campus? Students, as is the case with every citizen, have the right to feel like their daily life is not being recorded and watched around the clock. Increased CCTV surveillance may help prevent crime and identify perpetrators in North Dunedin, but will it be at the expense of losing the students’ trust? Only time will tell.