Watching the Science Center: Video Surveillance in Public Spaces

This past week, we touched on topics of privacy with regards to the widespread . The motivation for this post comes from a recent realization that there is a video camera overlooking the Harvard Science Center Plaza, one of the main student spaces between the dorms and classes, that is active 24/7 and is available for anyone to use. You can look at the live feed now. This fact troubled me a bit given that most students aren’t actively aware that they are being monitored. This raised many different questions for myself, including the following: Is the footage saved for future use? Why do they allow anyone access to this footage? More importantly, what is the purpose of having the camera here in the first place? For this post I’ll be focusing on the final question, namely, what are the different purposes for having surveillance cameras and video cameras in public spaces, and what further questions does this raise.

Although there isn’t an explicit reason for having this camera outlined on the website, we can safely assume it is a mix of the following common reasons: (1) To monitor events in a large public space for the safety of the community (similar to the way the Boston Marathon bomber was caught retroactively using security footage), or (2) As a fun way to allow people to see what is going on at the heart of Harvard’s campus.

The first reason seems plausible given that this sort of surveillance of public areas is an increasing trend across many institutions in the United States. However, it is difficult to know for sure for two reasons: (1) There is no information about whether or not the footage is saved for later use; my hunch is it probably is and (2) It seems strange that the University would publish this footage publicly if this was the primary purpose. This leads me to the second reason, which I think is the most likely reason. Given that the footage is published on the commonspaces website, promoting the public spaces at Harvard, it seems likely that the primary purpose of the footage is to give people a chance to see the plaza. This seems plausible; some people may just be interested in seeing what a common space actually looks like, and what better way than watching a live streamed video of it?

Would the general Harvard community act differently if they knew that they were constantly being watched while in the plaza? Does the capturing of every moment in these public spaces take away from the ability to fully relax without fear that a video may be taken out of context and used against a person? Will the constant surveillance in public spaces like the Science Center plaza lead to a notion of social cooling, or modified social behavior as is implied in Foucault’s notion of the Panopticon? Foucault’s idea was that in a circular prison where the prisoners cannot see the guard, but are always aware that the guard has the ability to constantly survey the prison, the prisoner’s will behave in a different manner as a result of their belief that they are always under surveillance. This idea can be pushed further in the notion of social cooling, where members of society will be less likely to take risks and be themselves, but rather conform to the norm because they are being watched. Will an increased awareness that we are being watched change our behavior and ultimately change or take away from the Harvard experience, or is it just harmless and a bit creepy?

1 Comment »

  1. Nasty C

    October 29, 2018 @ 6:00 pm


    With cameras around, I think the general behavior of the students are not really portrayed by them. There seems to be a display for camera kind of behavior by them, in which they show their best of character, keeping their other side for hidden places.

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