Surveillance at work: experience in a university context


Mary Prior
Department of Information Systems
De Montfort University


Summary In the author’s place of work, CCTV has been installed in a variety of locations. Research is being undertaken to establish:

  1. the decision-making process leading to the installation of surveillance equipment;
  2. the awareness and perceptions of those who are subjects of the surveillance.

This paper will present the outcomes of this research, in the context of ethical issues raised by the question of surveillance in the workplace.

A perennial problem for any university, but particularly for one based within a city, is how to ensure the security of the buildings, the equipment and the people who work there. One solution that has been adopted is to use CCTV in areas such as computer laboratories where equipment is vulnerable to abuse or theft. In the author’s place of work, a number of CCTV cameras have been installed in recent years, the purpose of which can be presumed to be to protect expensive equipment and to ensure the safety of both staff and students in a building that is open late on dark, winter evenings on an easily-accessible site close to a city centre. Presumed, because there does not appear to have been open debate nor consultation with respect to surveillance policy. While an organisation has every right to protect its resources, a number of issues are raised by the installation of surveillance equipment. Thus this research is being undertaken to clarify the decision-making process within the author’s institution and the extent to which ethical considerations have been taken into account. At the same time, the awareness of students as subjects of surveillance is being investigated.

The paper will present a rationale for the methodology used to undertake the research and the procedures involved to ensure that the ethical issues raised by the use of human subjects have been addressed.

Surveillance policy and practice within a UK university
The first issues to be addressed are who was responsible for deciding to install the CCTV cameras in a particular building and where to position them, and for what reasons this decision was taken. The extent of any ongoing review of the effectiveness of surveillance and indeed, whether any measures of effectiveness have been established, will be discussed. The protocols observed with respect to the films recorded will be examined as will the question of whether any consideration has been given at any stage to the ethical dimension of workplace surveillance. The research will reveal whether any of the decision-making has been made within the framework of institutional policy or whether responsibility currently lies at a more local (departmental) level.

Student awareness and attitudes
The second strand of the research involves investigating the extent to which students are aware of the surveillance mechanisms that are in place and the issues associated with them. This is being undertaken by means of a survey which will not identify individuals but which will reveal any evidence of differences based on factors such as year of study, course and gender. The research instrument is designed to help determine whether students perceive surveillance of themselves within the university as raising equivalent issues to surveillance of employees within the workplace.

Issues and outcomes
Finally, the paper will present the issues raised by the research.

Just as there is a need for guidelines to ensure ethically sensitive use of surveillance in the workplace, there is likely to be a need for guidelines for the ethical use of surveillance within a higher education context. While an institution has the right to protect its resources it also has a duty to observe the human rights of its students and employees. The question of how to attempt to balance these competing objectives will be addressed.

The investigation of the awareness and perceptions of the students who are subjects of surveillance adds another interesting dimension to this paper, likely to raise as many further questions to address as it answers.