On March 8, the University announced in an email to students, staff, and faculty that it would be installing security cameras “at all exterior doorways in undergraduate residential college buildings and dorms” by the start of the Fall 2023 semester. This was just the most recent development in a long-term discussion which has shown up in University Student Government (USG) presidential election debates, feedback sessions with administrators, and USG meetings.
The debate over surveillance is not a new issue for Princeton. Increasing campus security measures and monitoring by administrators in the wake of incidents on campus has been a trend since at least the late 1980s, while long-term requests for increased campus lighting have often been deprioritized. The Daily Princetonian looked back at the history of campus surveillance, and the controversies that it has sparked.
University opts for locks over lighting
In 1989, after two violent assaults on female students at Princeton, an ad hoc group of students and University administrators was created to discuss campus safety. The group’s mission was “examining the need for such measures as installing locks in dormitory entryways and improving lighting on campus.”
An informal survey that year by the ‘Prince’ noted that 54 percent of women at the time responded that they “did not feel safe walking around campus alone at night.”
According to the ‘Prince’ survey, students wanted more campus proctors, employees who monitored campus, and increased lighting on campus, noting Prospect Garden as an area in which students felt unsafe. At the same time, the Campus Safety Committee considered locking doors to dormitories, subsequently discussing the issue for months before coming to a decision.
In May of 1990, it was announced that as a pilot program, by the upcoming fall semester, doorways in Forbes College would have locks. The University floated “‘proximity sensors’ with an electronic panel attached to each doorway” which would unlock “whenever someone passed a special card within six inches of the sensor.” Student members of the committee voiced their opposition to the pilot due to the program’s high costs and the focus on door locks over campus lighting.
One notable opponent was Ted Cruz ’92, who served on the Campus Safety Committee at the time. Cruz noted that the program focused on violent assault over date rape on campus and feared that students would find ways to evade the door locks. Others took to the pages of the ‘Prince’ to write about their concerns. Eric Tilenius ’90 wrote, “we said we wanted the campus lit up, not locked up.”
In a Letter to the Editor, Melissa Weiler ’90 wrote, “For too many years this campus’s poor lighting has been a cause of great and legitimate concern, particularly for campus women. Various groups have lobbied the administration for improved lighting only to be granted meager, ineffectual concessions.”
The University began electronically locking Mathey and Rockefeller College dormitory entryways in 1991, a project that cost the University $700,000. Nowadays, students must scan their University ID card — commonly referred to as a prox — to access student dormitories.
Cameras appear in the ’90s
In March of 1997, campus crime rates at Princeton exceeded the national average, with rates of burglary rising by 87 percent between 1994 and 1996. The following October, Princeton announced that it would keep dorms locked 24 hours a day, accessible only by prox, mirroring the locking systems of several of its peer institutions.
In 1998, an editorial in the ‘Prince’ revealed plans by the then-serving Public Safety Crime Prevention Specialist to install security cameras in “parking lots and other high crime areas.” The editorial condemned the measure, writing that “if the initiative is implemented, the University will enter a new era of surveillance.”
While the piece acknowledged the push for more campus safety, it also raised questions similar to those raised today: “Public Safety needs to spell out their camera policy: Where will these cameras be placed? What constitutes a high crime area? What crimes will the use of these cameras target?”
The piece concluded with a warning to the University community, writing: “The plan is born of good intentions, but Public Safety should remain wary of setting up a campus where Big Brother has a wide window into students’ lives.”
Surveillance after the PATRIOT Act
A 2003 ‘Prince’ article traced the rise in concerns about privacy at peer institutions following the passage of the PATRIOT Act, which vastly expanded the powers of American law enforcement to engage in domestic electronic surveillance. Cornell students called attention to the monitoring of a private mailing list at the University of New Hampshire that led to a student protest being shut down.
Only a few years later at Princeton, students reacted with concern when the Department of Public Safety (DPS) revealed that it had used Facebook accounts in some of its investigations of student misconduct in 2006. DPS’s deputy director initially denied the claims that the department had used Facebook posts, saying that “it’s like Big Brother watching you and we don’t really operate that way.”
The department later revealed that it had used Facebook to “follow investigative leads” to find pictures, cell phone numbers, and other publicly-available information posted by students.
In one Letter to the Editor, Stephen Kerns ’09 wrote, “Though I find the intrusion an outright violation of our privacy, what I find most reprehensible about the situation is the dishonest and deceitful manner in which Deputy Director of Public Safety, Charles Davall, has responded to the issue.”
DPS announced guidelines for its usage of Facebook in March of 2006, which stated that officers could “continue to use Facebook as a supplementary source for investigations,” but were prohibited from searching the site “parties or other activities” and prohibited from “identifying themselves as students in their Facebook accounts.”
After these guidelines were made public, the ‘Prince’ editorial board wrote that despite privacy concerns, “these guidelines properly balance student concerns about privacy with Public Safety’s need to have effective crime fighting tools at its disposal.”
In March of this year, Director of Campus Safety and Health Kelly States commented during a USG meeting to members of the campus lighting working group that lighting decisions are “complicated.” This comment came months after the University had committed to new security measures: to restrict access to residential college common areas, “enhance campus lighting,” and “expand a security camera program.”
The University’s initial announcement relating to security cameras and lighting came only a few weeks after the passing of Misrach Ewunetie ’24. During an intensive five-day search while Ewunetie was missing, a lack of information prompted many to consider campus safety practices. Ewunetie’s death was not ruled a suicide until December.
Soon afterwards, proposals to add security cameras to campus became a topic of debate, with views both in support and against it. Supporters cited recent incidents on campus, while detractors raised the potential for surveillance.
On March 8, the University announced that it would implement security cameras on “exterior doorways in undergraduate residential college buildings and dorms” by Fall of 2023. This announcement did not include any updates relating to campus lighting.
During the March USG meeting, States commented that the University has to consider additional lighting with “competing priorities” relating to sustainability, light pollution, and research.
Seth Kahn ’25, a member of Students for Prison Reform, Education, and Abolition (SPEAR) wrote an email to the ‘Prince’ about his reaction to the announcement of security camera installations.
“When I heard about the security camera installation, I immediately thought about surveillance in the modern world. Modern surveillance technology has enormous potential for harm, especially around the related expansion of policing and the dangers of facial recognition,” Kahn wrote.
Like students in the ’80s, Kahn would prefer an emphasis on lighting.
“I have not met a single student who does not want increased lighting, but the University has made it clear that their priority is cameras, not lighting,” Kahn wrote.
On April 2, during a USG Senate meeting, Vice President for Campus Life W. Rochelle Calhoun and Assistant Vice President for Public Safety Ken Strother took questions on security camera and lighting initiatives on campus.
When asked about the University’s expanded ability to potentially surveil students through these cameras and whether the University would expand or change its policies in the future, Calhoun responded that although she could not speak to decisions by future committee members, “there is no intention of having these become surveillance.”
“We don’t intend to surveil our community, our students or otherwise,” Calhoun said.
Sophie Glaser is an assistant Features editor and staff News writer for the ‘Prince.’
Please direct any corrections requests to corrections[at]dailyprincetonian.com.