Education

Rice Students Object to New 24-7 Live Webcam on Campus [UPDATED]

What Rice calls "a beauty shot" and some students see as invasive.
What Rice calls "a beauty shot" and some students see as invasive. Screenshot
Update 8:30 a.m. 1-15-21: Rice President David Leebron has emailed a number of students, according to the Rice Thresher, telling them the web cam will not be turned back on until the university hears from students about their concerns.

A statement posted on the EarthCam portion of the website stated:

A livestream camera showing Lovett Hall and the Academic Quad was recently installed in the spirit of advancing Rice’s reputation and visibility, and allowing others to see the dynamic beauty of our campus. You can read more about the camera here.

While we have received positive feedback to the livestream, we also have heard from people who have concerns. In response, we have decided to turn the livestream camera off, and to not turn it back on until we have an opportunity to hear from both those who have expressed praise and those who have concerns, which will allow us to better assess the situation.

We appreciate your patience and understanding as we gather the information needed to make a final decision about the livestream.


Original Story:

The addition of a live 24-7 webcam system covering the main academic quad at Rice University which the university maintains is designed to show off the iconic beauty of that location, has run into an increasing number of student critics who say it invades their privacy, encourages stalkers and find it curiously suspect because of where the camera lens is aimed.

In the very centerpiece of the frame stands the imposing statue of William Marsh Rice, who besides being the prime financial force in the founding of Rice, was a slave owner, racist and segregationist. More recently, the Willy statue has been the target of protests by students who want it removed from campus because of his views. These protests range from simple gatherings with placards to covering the statue with signs to repeatedly putting a traffic cone atop his head.

Junior Eli Mendoza points out that there is a difference in the audience for EarthCam broadcasts and the regular security cameras on campus. "Live streaming for the public is just a completely different issue entirely," he says  EarthCam can be accessed by anyone on or off campus, while what security cameras record is private footage used by Rice security officers. And students, he says, didn't give their consent to be filmed in this way.

Of particular concern to junior Anna Rajagopal is that "The camera system enables anyone to monitor LGBTQ+ students who may be closeted. By monitoring the clothing and romantic behaviors of students (e.g. holding hands with another student), the camera places LGBTQ+ students in danger of being outed to those watching the livestream without their consent."

Rajagopal, who is also a member of the Willy sit-in group calling for the statue's removal,  also brings up the issue of mass shootings at schools and universities and points out "the camera system [which sits atop the main Fondren Library] could also allow potential shooters to monitor the traffic in a central area of campus."

Some students have experienced stalking on campus and the idea that they can be seen on the live stream without their consent has made them more nervous, Mendoza says.  Students say they weren't informed about the addition of the EarthCam system which a Rice representative confirms was considered for several months before being installed in January.  Students were notified of it in a January 7 newsletter that goes out to Rice students.

Adding a certain amount of extra interest to the debate is that Thursday, January 13, is one of the regularly scheduled Baker 13 streaker runs in which students from that and any other house on campus run naked across the quad wearing only shaving cream over their more private parts. Given the present temperatures in Houston and the fact that Rice is in virtual mode for the first two weeks of the spring semester, there may not be too many participants this time around. Also there was talk of re-routing the run to avoid the cameras, although that was also being criticized as breaking tradition.

At a little after 5 p.m. Wednesday, the university tweeted out: “In response to concerns raised by a number of people, the new EarthCam will be disabled during Baker 13. As a reminder, the camera is six stories above ground & viewers do not have the capability to zoom in. No faces or identifiable characteristics are able to be seen.”

"EarthCam is a network of 'beauty shot' cameras employed all over the world," says Doug Miller, director of News and Media Relations at Rice.  "This is a wide shot that shows Lovett Hall and the academic quadrangle. It's such a wide shot that you can't really see any distinguishing features on anyone walking around the quadrangle. Rice isn't the first university to have one of these," he says before emailing over links to other schools that have campus webcams including University of Houston, Auburn, Northwestern and Clemson.

But Mendoza and other students see it a different way.

"It seems like a very obvious attempt to keep 24 hour surveillance on the statue," the junior majoring in psychology says. "Even when they did announce it they said this shows off an historic landmark, but they were acting like Lovett Hall was the landmark.  But Lovett Hall is definitely in the background and not entirely in frame and the statue is at the very center."

An early morning look at Rice's EarthCam Wednesday showed one person walking the length of the pathway up toward Lovett Hall. Although students contend that by zooming in, individuals in the live stream can be identified by their clothing, on our attempts little could be discerned. This was also true later in the day when what appeared to be two students going in opposite directions crossed the width of the quad in front of the Willy statue. Wearing dark hoodies and masks, they appeared indistinguishable from each other (the phrase "Even their own mothers couldn't tell them apart" sprang to mind.}

For freshman Jerry Templeton there are two main issues. The computer science major says he doesn't think the university handled communications about the new system very well.  "A lot of people heard about it for the first time yesterday." He said people didn't know they were being live-streamed when the system was tried out last year. He doesn't understand why, if Rice wants to generate a pretty picture of the quad, that it doesn't just send out a still photograph or two.
click to enlarge
One of the many Willy statue sit-ins.
Photo by Anna Ta

The second major point for Templeton is the statue, which he wants gone. While he thinks the computer science program at Rice is great and says he's found both students and professors at the school very open to diversity, he doesn't understand why the Willy statue is still there. "I am African American. After we expressed our concerns about the camera and our safety because it promotes stalking like behavior they said they don't really care what we think. They think it's good and they care more about a statute than their own students and the statue they're caring about is of a slave owner. As an African American student it doesn't feel good that I am put below a statue."

Gautam Nayer, a Rice alum and now a professor at Texas Southern University, says several students see the webcam as a surveillance tool and wonder why it's on campus. He thinks it's odd that a private university is releasing this footage publicly — he says students at a public university have no expectation of privacy in common areas, but a private school is different. 

Miller says the idea came up as an easy way to give TV stations a chance to show a quick live look at Rice during weather events for example. He does not think it's reasonable to say that anyone could use watching the webcam to target victims on campus because the image is too blurry. He seems perplexed at any criticisms of their effort.

"We didn't think anybody would object to it to be honest," he says. He said he and another former TV journalist had been talking about it for several years. "How it'd be great to have a beauty shot of campus largely so that people could watch it on the web and so the television weather people could pop it up as they're talking about the beautiful sunrise over Houston for instance."  He said they found out about EarthCam and it took several months of discussion to move it to fruition. He says they published information about it in Rice News and put it on the Rice website so he disagrees that there wasn't enough communication about EarthCam.

In his emails back to students, Miller acknowledges that they've received a number of letters about the new camera system and thanks the writers for raising the question. "We can always turn the camera off if the situation warrants it, but the camera is so high above the ground and the picture is so wide you really can't see any distinguishing features of people walking on the sidewalks six stories below. And at night, the camera shot from that high perspective shows pretty much the entire quad either very dimly lit or entirely in darkness."

Students disagree, saying that there is ample lighting at night in the quad. But whether Rice is filming in the dark for some reason or catching well-lit late night action, the issue isn't going to settle down for a while. Templeton is also the NSR or new student representative for his college house and he says he and all the other NSRs have gotten together and are planning a sit-in and an email saying "We don't think your camera is beneficial to anybody."

So, warranted or not, as the weather forecasters would say, looks like Rice is in for some continued stormy weather. 
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