University of Nevada’s Camera Network Raises Fear
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University of Nevada’s Camera Network Raises Fear

By Frank X. Mullen Jr.

University of Nevada, Reno officials acknowledge that a network of about 80 “homeland security” surveillance cameras is operating throughout the campus, and UNR faculty members and state lawmakers say new policies and perhaps laws may be needed to prevent the system from becoming a “big brother” surveillance system.

Those concerns have been triggered in part because a homeland security camera in the College of Agriculture was redirected to monitor the doorways of a UNR associate professor who is suing the university and has filed federal animal abuse complaints against UNR.

The camera was focused on the doorways of Associate Professor Hussein S. Hussein after private investigators hired by Hussein found a university police camera hidden in a smoke detector outside the teacher’s office and police removed the device.

UNR officials provided only general information about the homeland security video network, which was completed in January. They won’t say under what circumstances the cameras can be redirected away from building entrances in order to keep an eye on the doorways of faculty offices, labs or classrooms. They said publicizing that information “would compromise the system.”

The smoke-detector camera taken down by police Jan. 31 was installed after UNR president John Lilley approved its use to investigate a report of graffiti — a swastika — scrawled on the professor’s door. Redirecting the homeland security camera — located down the same hallway — on the professor’s door on Feb. 3 required no such authorization.

That’s because it’s part of the homeland security system, officials said.

UNR officials said the new cameras, paid for by a $598,000 Department of Homeland Security grant awarded in 2003, are in plain sight in public areas such as hallways and are similar in appearance to video surveillance in casinos and other businesses.

But since 1993, people on the state’s college campuses have enjoyed more protection against video surveillance than the general public.

That year, lawmakers reacting to an incident at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas banned surveillance of students, employees and faculty members except when a criminal complaint is being investigated. The Nevada Board of Regents mandated that hidden cameras can be used only with the written approval of the campus president.

Cameras questioned

Jim Richardson, a lobbyist for the Nevada Faculty Alliance, said the video surveillance system at UNR and the use of cameras to monitor Hussein’s doors, raises disturbing questions.

“Nobody should be directing cameras anywhere unless there’s criminal activity and the president authorizes it,” he said. “There’s been a lot of concern among faculty members about the cameras, and so far the explanations (from UNR officials) haven’t been viewed as adequate.”

State law did not anticipate that security cameras would become so commonplace.

“We’ve taken a quantum leap since that law was passed in 1993,” Richardson said. “Back then, we were worried about spy cameras set up to catch illegal basketball practices at UNLV. … Now surveillance is a national issue; it’s an international issue. It’s like we’re losing any expectations of privacy, walking down the street, at work, a mall, anywhere.”

Richardson said regents’ policies and state law haven’t caught up with the conflict between privacy and security in the post-9/11 world.

State Sen. Bob Coffin, D-Las Vegas, who sponsored the 1993 camera ban, said he’s withholding judgment on UNR’s use of security cameras and hidden police cameras until he has more facts. But he said UNR should have a clear policy about when and how the new camera system will be used.

“You can’t use homeland security as a blanket reason to do anything you want,” he said.

Since the Reno Gazette-Journal began asking UNR officials in January about surveillance cameras on campus, university officials have offered varying — and sometimes conflicting — explanations.

Adam Garcia, campus police chief, at first said that his force had nothing to do with the homeland security video system. But UNR officials now admit that Garcia has full control of the cameras. They said Garcia hadn’t been fully briefed until Jan. 11, about a week after he denied knowing much about the system.

In that interview, Garcia said the homeland security cameras couldn’t be used for police surveillance or to investigate the intrusions and sabotage of experiments reported by Hussein in his lab at the College of Agriculture. On Feb. 3, three days after the camera hidden in the smoke detector was removed, Garcia ordered a homeland camera in the agriculture building be used to monitor the same lab to help investigate Hussein’s reports of intrusions, university officials said.

On Friday, Garcia said security cameras are a common law-enforcement tool.

Cameras protect campus

“These are (placed in) areas where there is no expectation of privacy – hallways and other public areas,” Garcia said. “Cameras are not placed in private areas such as offices, labs or rest rooms. All of the cameras are highly visible, in plain view and are housed in a round ‘bubble’ — no different than those found in most public places throughout the country to deter theft and other crimes.”

Jane F. Tors, UNR spokeswoman, said the system is “passive” and doesn’t have live video monitors. She said the digital recordings would be viewed only “when a breach of security has been reported to university police.”

But an examination of the camera system by private investigators hired by Hussein revealed that the cameras are connected to a network called an Ethernet. That network can be instantly hooked up to video monitors. The police camera also was connected to the same local network, the investigators said.

Tors said the cameras’ fields of view are limited to public areas.

“These cameras cannot be remotely redirected,” she said. “In other words, one would use a ladder to physically redirect the camera. There is no remote zoom-in, zoom-out capability. They are similar to what you might see in a convenience store and are not the same as cameras or security systems typically used in casinos.”

She said the hidden smoke detector camera was aimed at Hussein’s door Dec. 29, but UNR officials have said they didn’t warn him of any danger. Tors said the camera was installed without the professor’s knowledge to help police investigate a swastika that appeared on his door on Dec. 27. A faculty member, who police still decline to identify, was the only person to see the symbol and erased it before reporting it.

Between Dec. 29 and Jan. 27, Hussein and three graduate students noticed unlocked doors they said had been locked the nights before, and the students documented the contamination of several lab experiments. Those incidents were being investigated last week by the Nevada Division of Investigation with the help of campus police.

Hussein’s three students said they believe the constant surveillance and the lab incidents are part of an orchestrated effort to discredit Hussein.

Professor questions surveillance

UNR officials said police video of the lab door shows no “unauthorized persons” entered the rooms during the period of the reported intrusions. Hussein said he suspects UNR employees with keys to his door, who are authorized to enter his lab in emergencies, are behind the intrusions and sabotage.

Hussein said a campus police officer notified him that his lab was again under surveillance on Feb. 3 while he and his lawyer were in court on a matter involving his civil rights lawsuit against UNR. Officials said the officer told Hussein the new camera was there to protect him, but Hussein said he wasn’t given a reason for the continued surveillance.

“A policeman tracks me down at an important meeting in federal court to tell me I’m still being watched,” he said. “The unspoken message I took away was, ‘OK smart guy, you found our spy camera, but we can still keep an eye on you, and there’s nothing you can do about it.’

“I didn’t request a camera and I don’t want one, but there it is,” he said.

FBI agents questioned Hussein in his home last month after UNR police told agents the lab intrusions could result in a bio-hazard situation. But the agents decided within 24 hours that no federal laws were involved.

Hussein said he doesn’t believe that UNR officials, who are trying to fire him and prosecute him for discovering the first hidden camera, are concerned about his safety.

He said his experience is proof that the camera system, or even the phrase “homeland security,” can be used to intimidate employees who complain about wrongdoing at UNR.

“I spoke out and that’s what is happening to me,” he said.

Assemblywoman Chris Giunchigliani, D-Las Vegas, a member of the higher education subcommittee of the Ways and Means Committee, said the camera issues at UNR appear to be a “bait-and-switch” situation. She said once the police camera was unmasked, another camera, supposedly dedicated to the security of the building’s entrances, quickly took its place.

“I just see a violation of state law,” she said. “You are not supposed to use cameras to spy on a professor or anyone else on campus.”

She said there are too many coincidences in Hussein’s case, and UNR officials may be overstepping their authority.

“UNR has no clear policy governing those cameras and that’s already an issue,” Giunchigliani said. “I don’t want to jeopardize real security needs, but you can’t use homeland security as a convenient reason to do anything you want to do.”

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