Studenten

Kiss your privacy goodbye

Smile! You're on camera

Student houses increasingly contain cameras, recording the residents 24 hours a day. One advantage of cameras is that they can make residents feel safer. But how does it feel to be watched all the time?
By Edward Szekeres

International students living in the Rikkers-Lubbers house engaged in collective headscratching a couple of months ago when they watched maintenance men installing a CCTV camera in the corner of their spacious common room. ‘We didn’t know what was going on. The workers just came in and put up the cameras without saying much to us’, says economics and business student Oliver Horstmann.

Ever since that day in September, students have had mixed feelings about the unblinking eye in their common room. Some are slowly getting used to it. But others are annoyed.

The workers just came in and put up the cameras

The tenants of Rikkers-Lubbers house are not the only ones who have to put up with an ever-watching lens. The Student Hotel and the former rehabilitation centre at the Vondellaan also employ CCTV cameras. Although there is no official register of surveillance cameras in the Netherlands, journalism blog Sargasso estimates the number of CCTV devices in the country to be well beyond 1 million. In Groningen, too, we under constant surveillance whether we like it or not.

Safety First

In the Rikkers-Lubbers house, the landlord put up cameras to keep the students in check after noise complaints from their neighbours. But what about tenant privacy? ‘Any installation of CCTV cameras interferes with the private spheres of individuals involved. It has consequences for safeguarding their right to data protection’, says Jonida Milaj-Weishaar, a researcher at the Faculty of Law.

However, for student houses, preserving public security and protecting the rights of others can be a sufficient justification for invading privacy. ‘Think of prevention of theft or damage to the property’, explains Milaj-Weishaar.

Surrounded by the lavish décor of the Student Hotel, a high-end student accommodation facility just outside Groningen’s city centre, French master student Clemence is very comfortable with the non-stop surveillance from CCTV cameras. They are strategically positioned both inside and outside the building.

Tight security

‘I feel good about the cameras. Most of the time, I don’t even think about them’, says Clemence. She believes that in a building like the Student Hotel, tight security is a must. ‘International students are preyed upon in this city. If something happens here, the cameras will make it easier to find the culprit.’

International students are preyed upon in this city

Over at the makeshift student accommodation at the Vondellaan, those concerns are far from hypothetical. Tenants there have suffered more than a dozen attempted burglaries in less than three months. Five security cameras were recently installed around the building’s entrances. ‘This place is definitely safer now’, says Tadhg O’Sullivan, an Irish master student. He says the CCTV has a ‘deterrent effect’ on criminals.

Erwin Vos, one of the property’s landlords, says it was the students themselves who requested cameras above the entrances after the burglaries. Vos is happy with the results so far. ‘The footage actually helped us identify one criminal who was then arrested. This is a little victory for us.’

Conclusive evidence

The incident happened only a couple days after the cameras went up. Residents recorded the trespassers with their phones and asked the landlord for the CCTV footage to obtain conclusive evidence. Vos, however, refused: ‘We only share our footage with the police. We can’t give it to the students.’

The Vondellaan tenants say they obtained part of the requested footage from Vos’ ‘very helpful’ nephew. ‘But when the landlord found out, he got upset and cut off our access to the footage’, a resident said. Vos does not recall any such incident.

Is it right for tenants to be subjected to 24 hour surveillance and not be allowed to access the footage? Dutch regulation suggests that individuals may have a right to access data collected by a security device if they know they appear in the recordings.

Self-conscious

But does it follow that the Vondellaan students should get access to the recordings from their house? Not necessarily, says Jonida Milaj-Weishaar. She can understand Erwin Vos’ decision not to share the footage. ‘People have the right to access their personal data, but not that of others’, she explains.

People have the right to access their personal data

Pervasive surveillance may be a deterrent for crime, but experts suggest that it also stops people from doing normal things they want to do. ‘We tend to self-censor and behave differently in public than at home’, explains Milaj-Weishaar. ‘We all have different faces that we show to our parents, to our childhood friends, to our colleagues, to our partners or to our bosses.’

Students seem to be extremely wary of their privacy. ‘I wouldn´t want anyone to see me in my pyjamas or evidence of me coming home drunk. I wouldn’t even kiss my boyfriend in front of that camera’, says Clemence, who is monitored by a camera in the corridor leading to her room. The presence of CCTV in her immediate private sphere makes her feel ‘self-conscious’. ‘People are entitled to a private life outside a public zone’, she says.

Noisy students

Privacy infringement lay at the root of a heated debate that split residents of the Vondellaan complex into two opposing camps. The bulk of the tenants wanted the landlord to install security cameras inside the building, on top of the CCTV already in place outside. They argued that the indoor cameras would not only act as a deterrent to criminals, but would also keep noisy, misbehaving and ‘annoying’ students in check.

The cameras would only create a general fear of getting caught

Others, like Tadhg, disagree. ‘Nothing happened here that would necessitate putting up cameras indoors’, he says. ‘Some minor incidents occurred earlier, but we always dealt with them amongst ourselves. The cameras would only create a general fear of getting caught for small accidents with no intention to cause any damage.’ Tadhg thinks that if the tenants ‘had to watch their backs all the time’, they would find a way to escape the gaze of the cameras, for example by ‘moving the party out of sight’.

The mixed responses to the matter of security cameras is essentially a matter of trust and relationships, argues psychology professor Tom Postmes of the RUG. ‘People’s reaction to installing a security camera will expose and potentially transform their relationship with the people who put up the device and with others in their direct environment.’

Too much power

Worrying about the potential use of footage might hint at lower levels of trust towards the person responsible for the camera – the landlord, for example. ‘On the other hand, if people don’t trust others in their immediate environment, putting up cameras could make sense for them from the perspective of their own safety.’

It is difficulty to determine which side is ‘right’ about the issue, and what that might mean for the cameras already installed. ‘There are so many factors, behaviours, feelings, and possible consequences at play here that it’s very hard to disentangle them.’

To Tadhg, the differences in opinion regarding CCTV surveillance ultimately boil down to personality differences. ‘It’s not as much about where you’re from but about what kind of person you are. Some people just want too much power, too much control.’

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