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Building Security FAQs

What you need to know about video surveillance.
University Business, Nov 2007

IN THE AFTERMATH OF THE VIRGINIA TECH shootings, college campuses struggle to design the perfect mix of technology, systems, and software to protect students, faculty, and staff members. Many questions swirl around these technology discussions as administrators and campus security folks consider privacy, integration, budget, and the latest up-and-coming technology around video surveillance. How can campuses make sense of all this information? The following frequently asked questions will help administrators determine whether this technology can benefit their campus and how to ensure its success.

When weighing privacy and security on a college campus, the goal is to provide both in the least intrusive way possible, says Chris Bailey, director of campus support services (which oversees the campus safety office) at Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre, Pa.

"Unlike fire alarms or sprinklers, there is no code for camera coverage," Bailey says. "After 9/11, concern for privacy has not been an issue at Wilkes. This may mean that people are not as concerned as they used to be, or that we're not pushing the envelope."

The greater good for cameras, Bailey says, is to act as the deterrent. Small universities cannot devote staff time to monitor cameras and actively catch a crime in progress. Instead, cameras are used as an investigative tool after the fact. Wilkes University will soon deploy more than 50 Axis cameras in public areas in a recently renovated residence hall to deter crime.

Assistant Professor Marc Blitz at Oklahoma City University School of Law believes schools, law enforcement agents, and others should avoid assuming that privacy and security are always at odds. There are often ways to enhance security without making a massive sacrifice in privacy, he says. Blitz follows the advice of Harvard law professor William Stuntz, who advocates allowing government greater powers of surveillance and investigation but limiting how that information is used.

"I've tried to adapt this advice to govern the use of video surveillance, and it might well have a place in thinking more carefully about campus security," Blitz says.

Every government entity has privacy concerns as they look at video surveillance, Drummond says, and they all balance them differently. Some believe that if a building is public, they have the right to put cameras anywhere. Other institutions will place video cameras only in an area that's definitely considered a public area, such as a cafeteria or registration area.

"In today's age, security trumps privacy and most will default to trying to be safer and more secure and just deal with issues that come up relating to privacy," says Keith Drummond, CEO of Houston-based LenSec, a provider of IP-based video surveillance solutions.

Many people believe that privacy is a big issue for students, says Chief Michael McNair, director of public safety at American University (D.C.) Yet their participation in sites such as Facebook, MySpace, and YouTube indicate otherwise.

"If you look at those sites, you will see that students are not camera shy or concerned about privacy at all," McNair states. "They accept video surveillance as a fact of everyday life."

At American U, video surveillance is used only in public places where there is no legal expectation of privacy-never in bathrooms or student rooms. In the wake of 9/11 and Virginia Tech-type events, students, staff , and faculty understand that they have to give up some privacy rights to have a safer and more secure campus. The university even deploys students as camera monitors so they are participating in the process.

North Harris Montgomery Community College District (Texas) handles its video surveillance in an obvious way for its five campuses around Houston-making signs and cameras visible in public areas such as parking lots, some hallways, and money exchange areas.

"We try to use surveillance in a manner that deters crime and makes people feel safe on our campuses," says Richard Gregory, district director of public safety at NHMCCD. "It provides us added eyes to detect crime and a deterrent to improper behavior."

Gregory believes surveillance is a great assistance to ensuring public safety. Although he says people seem less concerned about their privacy in public areas, the college district still considers privacy issues as it deploys cameras on campus.

Security projects are traditionally funded through the campus's public safety budget, says Chris Johnston, product marketing manager at New York-based Bosch Security Systems. This is driven in part by new construction, where funding might come from the initial capital costs of the facility. Funding for this purpose often opens up the institution to grants from entities such as the Department of Justice.

"Today, as security systems become part of a university's technology infrastructure, tapping into the overall IT budget can also help to defray costs," Johnston relates.

Irvine Valley College, a community college located in southern California with 11,000 students, is starting the process of building a complete video security IP-based system on its Cisco network. This entails getting quotes, addressing potential issues, and gathering campus input on the topic.

"We want to work together with the campus constituents to address items such as placement, liability, resource monitoring (people), expectations, long-term and short-term costs relating to support and maintenance, and cost-benefit analysis, to name a few," says Tran Hong, director of technology at Irvine.

American University uses crime stats and student-staff surveys to determine where to place cameras. Basically, more cameras are needed in a building or parking garage than in an open area. McNair says many students report feeling safer in areas patrolled by cameras.

McNair says his campus uses fixed cameras in places where they need to watch a specific area. Pan-tilt-zoom (PTZ) cameras are deployed in open spaces to reduce the number of cameras needed.

Captain Beth Simonds at the University of Richmond (Va.) Police Department believes wireless cameras should be installed in high crime areas and high traffic areas. She also suggests placing cameras in areas with valuable items in order to prevent additional crimes and to provide evidence of crimes that have been committed.

"Camera placement by all entryways can be very beneficial, as well as in locations that will provide police with a 'full face' image of a suspect," Simonds says. "Whether the surveillance cameras are intended to be seen or to be covert should also be considered."

Bosch's Johnston says the number of cameras needed depends on the goals of the surveillance program itself.

Systems integrators can help universities design video surveillance systems, Johnston relates, but they need input from all stakeholders. This communication and defining of requirements will help integrators have a full understanding of the ultimate goals of the system.

"In most cases, if these items are considered, integrators will be better able to design a system that can scale as the university grows or seeks to expand the capabilities of the system," Johnston says.

Lending out cards is not a serious problem at American University, McNair states, since students' building access card is also their ID card and meal card. Frankly, the bigger problem is students "tailgating" behind those entering with cards.

'Video often provides the fi rst piece of the puzzle with notifi cation of an event.' - Chris Johnston, Bosch Security Systems

"Students are reluctant to challenge people in front or behind them who are entering buildings without authorization," McNair says. "It is believed this is the method that most unaffiliated individuals get into buildings to commit crimes. Most students do not give their ID cards to strangers but would let strangers walk into the building behind them without challenge."

Longwood University (Va.), on the other hand, did have a problem with students propping open resident hall doors after its card access system was added about seven years ago. It ultimately added a horn that sounds when the door is propped open more than a few seconds. Within two weeks, it was no longer a problem, says Frank Moore, vice president, Information Technology, and CIO.

"The horn will go off and wake up the entire resident hall," Moore states. "That put that problem to bed."

Moore attended the Virginia Governor's Conference on Campus Security in July 2007. It proved valuable for his institution because it validated they were making the right security decisions.

Although video analytics have been around since the mid-1990s, Craig Chambers, CEO at Cernium, a developer of real-time video behavior recognition software, says it's a technology that has really evolved over the last decade. Video analytics significantly improve the ability to pick up and observe specific activity or people in multiple cameras.

"The camera is doing most of the looking around in a way that doesn't intrude on privacy," Chambers says.

He tends to see colleges and universities making small camera installations to start (20 to 30 cameras) in the areas of greatest concern. Staff members learn how to use the system and scale it up over time. One of Cernium's customers, Johns Hopkins University (Md.), started its transition with less than 30 cameras. It now operates up to 200 cameras around campus that are tied to a mobile officer force around campus.

"With its immediate communication capabilities, Johns Hopkins uses it as a real-time crime deterrent," Chambers states. "The cameras act as 24/7 eyes for the video surveillance system."

For schools with large camera infrastructures, Johnston says, it is difficult for the public safety staff to monitor live video feeds from all across campus. Video analytics reduces the amount of video presented to security personnel by automatically delivering only those images that generate an alert due to a potential security concern.

"Security personnel can set parameters for the surveillance system to raise an alarm to the system operator when it detects suspicious patterns of behavior," Johnston says. Systems can be programmed to trigger alarms based on object size, loitering, or the removal of objects from a scene.

McNair believes the greatest challenge is cost. Part of this challenge is selling the system to administrators and convincing them to spend scarce resource dollars on more cameras.

"A good way to do that is to use monitoring to catch criminals in the act or document an activity that saves the university from a lawsuit," McNair relates. "Another way to convince them they should spend the money is to show how much university property is stolen or damaged during a school year."

Video networks are sensitive to transmission delays, unlike e-mail traffic, but Wi-Fi standards have evolved to handle this with the 802.11e technology, according to Chip Yager, director of operations in Motorola's mesh network group. Advancements are also evident in the video management applications, where sophisticated video analysis tools can automatically alert security personnel if a package is left behind or if someone enters an off-limits area.

"We're seeing an increasing interest in using wireless networks to carry video signals throughout campus environments," Yager states. "College campuses are already equipped with many indoor Wi-Fi networks, so these same types of networks moved outdoors and married to digital cameras offer fast and inexpensive deployment of security cameras wherever they're needed."

Some schools, such as Virginia Commonwealth University, can monitor fixed cameras from mobile vehicles so that they can arrive on the scene with full knowledge of an incident.

Universities are also interested in integrating video surveillance with other applications on an IP network, such as building access controls and campus cards, says LenSec's Drummond. K-12 actually leads the way in this area, and universities are now following suit. If a student comes in after hours to a residence hall, for example, it will trigger an alarm and capture live video of the person for a real-time view.

One of the most crucial aspects to the success of a surveillance deployment is integration with other security subsystems, Johnston states. This can include facility and perimeter access control and mass notification vehicles such as public address and voice evacuation systems.

"Video often provides the first piece of the puzzle with notification of an event," Johnston says. "Coupling that information with the ability to remotely lock residence hall or classroom building doors or notify students and staff of a campuswide lockdown could more effectively provide protection during an incident."

Vicki Powers is a freelance writer who often covers technology issues. She is based in Houston.

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