You May Be On Tape

Video Cameras Abound at Institute, But No Institute-Wide Policies Govern Usage

CORRECTION TO THIS ARTICLE: The Nov. 2, 2007 news article about video surveillance on campus listed Building 18 twice and omitted Building 6 when describing where the Chemistry Department has cameras. Chemistry’s 30 cameras are primarily in Building 18, with a small number in Buildings 4 and 6.

If you walk around public areas of the Institute, there may be cameras recording you.

The Department of Mathematics has video cameras in corridors and stairwells of Building 2, and there are cameras in the parking garage elevators and basement corridors of Building 32. No Institute-wide regulations govern the placement of these cameras or who has access to them. Cameras at the Institute may be intended to promote safety and security, as well as to deter theft, but they also have implications for privacy at the Institute.

In the case of Mathematics, the cameras record only from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. and automatically delete their records after seven days.

In restricted departmental spaces of the Institute, cameras may be even more prevalent. The Department of Chemistry has 30 cameras, mostly within Building 18, and they are integrated with their card access system.

Underneath the Ray and Maria Stata Center (Building 32), as well as in parking garages around campus, cameras exist but are defunct and unmonitored. Previously they fed the Campus Police Headquarters in W31, but when the Police moved to W89 in February 2006, they did not bring the video feeds with them.

According to Thomas W. Komola of MIT’s Security and Emergency Management Office, the prevalence of cameras in public spaces “is a problem.”

Komola said that “all cameras should be on a unified policy” but that no such policy currently exists. Neither the Security Office nor the police have a comprehensive list of cameras on campus, and there is no good way to track them down, short of walking around campus and looking around, Komola said.

Komola said that the MIT Police and Security Office have guidelines prohibiting cameras in public spaces, but there is little enforcement of those guidelines. If a department proposes a camera, the police and Security Office may help with funding, as long as the camera is in a private location. Cameras are sufficiently cheap that the lack of funding assistance from the police is probably not a real deterrent to their deployment in public spaces.

Daniel L. Michaud of the Security Office said that MIT has no formal video surveillance policy. No directly pertinent policies appear in MIT’s Policies and Procedures, available on the Web at

Komola said he thought the lack of policy and accounting for cameras on campus was a real problem and that the faculty and administration needed to be approached on these issues, but there was no time frame for improving the situation.   

Mathematics Department

The Department of Mathematics maintains four cameras within Building 2. Two of those cameras point at a stairwell in the southeast corner of the building near Memorial drive, on the first and second floors. There is also a camera at the end of the hallway near lecture hall 2-190, as well as in the main second floor corridor.

According to Paula F. Duggins, administrative officer for Mathematics, the cameras record overnight from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. daily, and they are motion-activated. The cameras record over the network, Duggins said, and video records are kept for one week and automatically deleted. Only Mathematics system administrators have access to the videos, Duggins said.

Duggins said that department’s cameras were installed in March 2006 in response to several break-ins during 2005. They have “acted as a substantial deterrent to equipment theft, as well as providing our community with a measure of personal safety,” Duggins said.

Stata Center, parking garages

When the Stata Center was built in 2004, video cameras were installed pointing at emergency telephones in the basement, in parking garages, and in elevators serving the parking garages.

Who watches those cameras? According to MIT Police Captain David Carlson, “Nobody.”

Carlson said that when the Campus Police moved their headquarters from Building W31 next to the Student Center out to W89 on the west edge of campus, they evaluated the cost of bringing the video feeds with them and elected not to move the video feeds. “I can’t recall a situation off the top of my head where they were ever used,” Carlson said.

Carlson said he was concerned that the presence of unmonitored cameras might raise a false sense of security. “I think the intent is to remove the cameras,” he said.

Carlson will be heading up operations for the Campus Police when Chief John DiFava moves to co-head Facilities effective Nov. 5.

Chemistry Department

The Department of Chemistry maintains a comprehensive array of 30 cameras throughout Building 18, as well as a handful of cameras in departmental space in Buildings 4 and 18.

According to Scott R. Wade, who handles operations for the department, Chemistry Department’s cameras were installed in 2004 as part of a comprehensive card-access system. Wade said that the card access and camera system together cost about $650,000, and the project was funded by the office of then-Executive Vice President John R. Curry.

Chemistry’s cameras are generally pointed at card access devices and record footage continuously to digital video recorders, Wade said. The footage is recorded for 14 days. Wade said he thought the cameras had been a useful deterrent to theft.

But even Chemistry’s cameras that cover their departmental spaces can intrude into public areas: one of Chemistry’s cameras overlooks the nitrogen tanks outside the northeast corner of Building 18 and may record passers-by walking in the thoroughfare between Buildings 18 and 56.