Expensive U. Texas surveillance systems seen by some as vast
By: Jonathan York
February 14, 2003, Friday
Here's a University of Texas-Austin security quiz. If you needed a surveillance camera for a computer lab, who would provide it -- Campus Planning and Facilities Maintenance, the UT Police Department or Information Technology Services?
If you chose CPFM or UTPD, you were wrong.
To obtain video surveillance cameras, motion sensors or a silent alarm trigger, a department administrator would do best to consult William Stephens, an ITS systems engineer.
"When I meet with clients, we talk about what their concerns are," Stephens said. "Typically, they're not looking at the whole building. They'll have some specific area of interest. I think engineering may have a couple labs scattered on two floors, and may have a camera in each lab. Maybe the proctor is responsible for three labs, and he can't see them all."
ITS Telecommunications and Networking ultimately provides most of the security systems on campus. The office gives advice and creates plans to suit administrative costs. It also keeps secrets; Stephens would not say which UT departments had invested the most in surveillance.
From Stephens' perspective, the world of campus security is vast and incompatible.
"Do they want to have high-resolution, is it going to be color, is it going to be recorded?" Stephens said. "My concern is there's no real policy on how these [systems] are managed. The University should have a policy."
UT surveillance systems have provoked student debate since mid-January, when the University sued the state attorney general to withhold security camera information from a Daily Texan open records request. The attorney general had ruled that the University release the requested documents.
While UT officials fight to keep those records closed, citing "national security," a picture of surveillance operations emerges from interviews and documents publicly available on ITS Web space.
The Red McCombs School of Business asked to spend $ 44,800 for "video security" in March 2000, according to one ITS report. In its section on the business school, the same document notes that, "The surveillance system proposed is a somewhat Orwellian trend."
According to an expenditure report, the UT general libraries acquired a $28,034.70 "video security system" in the same year. The minutes of an October 2001 meeting of UT general libraries department heads refer to "the recently installed surveillance cameras which may be upgraded."
Cameras routinely show up in parking garages, computer labs and "security-sensitive areas," according to the University's online explanation of security systems. They also peer within libraries and at exterior doors and elevator lobbies in San Jacinto Residence Hall. But Stephens mentioned another setting where people are watched -- auditorium-style classrooms.
In another case, UT cable channels 32 and 33 are designated by ITS for "Various Uses: Teleconference, Classroom." Sometimes, though, the classroom cameras installed for these purposes continue to transmit into the night. At press time, the blank walls and empty teaching station of a ghostly classroom lingered on channel 32.
One can only guess who is watching the information from any camera at any given time. Only some cameras feed straight into monitors at the UT police station. Others may be watched by a UT department's employees -- or by no one at all. Some cameras merely record videotape, Stephens said.
ITS spends time in more than one field of surveillance. It has software in place that keeps track of who is logged on to the network at what time.
"We have a requirement to keep certain logging information," said Angel Cruz, director of information security for ITS. He did not say precisely what information was collected.
A Web page on the business school's server recently bore the heading, "Secret Medialab Staff Area," and the text, "If you have stumbled upon this page by accident, please leave immediately. You are under surveillance."
"UT monitors ... constantly who is logging into what. UT always knows who you are and where you are," Joerg Becker, the business school's director of media services, said at the time of the discovery.
Eight days after a Texan reporter asked Becker what the page meant, the heading and text had been changed to read, simply, "Medialab Staff."
"I'm obviously not going to disclose operational issues here," said Larry Leibrock, who watches over the business school's server, in regard to questions about server monitoring. "These systems are important to us."
An ITS report shows that the business school proposed spending $ 27,000 in academic year 2001-02 for server-monitoring software.
Though surveillance cameras watch over several campus areas, Stephens sees no reason to worry about privacy, "unless there's some kind of incident that warrants going back and revealing that information [captured on tape]," he said. "Otherwise, who cares? It's boring stuff. You sit there and watch people come and go."