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MSU to expand surveillance system into East Lansing

April 28, 2024

Michigan State University plans to expand its new centralized surveillance system into the city of East Lansing, a move experts say exacerbates current privacy and civil liberty concerns with the system.

MSU is still integrating thousands of cameras and sensors across campus into the system, which uses an AI-powered software that can track people, vehicles and crowds.

The expansion was first recommended by outside consultants in a review of MSU’s response to the February 2023 campus shooting.

The review, which was conducted by Ohio-based firm Security Risk Management Consultants and released publicly in October 2023, lauded the centralized surveillance system, which had been in the works before the shooting.

But they recommended MSU Police “encourage businesses and local residents to share access to their private cameras that provide views beneficial to MSUPD.”

MSU Department of Police and Public Safety spokesperson Dana Whyte said that once MSU finishes implementing the system at a campus-wide level, it will start reaching out to local businesses and residents to request access to their private cameras.

Whyte said they’ll also consider requesting access to East Lansing’s city-owned camera system.

Ed Vogel, a researcher for the Surveillance Resistance Lab, said there’s less oversight in surveillance systems that incorporate privately owned cameras.

“There's little that a public individual can do to demand a privately owned camera not be integrated into a system,” Vogel said. “It just opens up the door for more abuse because there's fewer mechanisms for actually addressing that.”

For some East Lansing business owners, integrating their private cameras would be a tough decision to make.

Kris Lachance, owner of Splash of Color Tattoo & Piercing Studio on Grand River Avenue, said she would have privacy concerns if MSU asked for access to her business’s private cameras. But she also wants to support the university.

“It’s super sad to come to a day and age where that’s felt like it’s a necessity,” Lachance said. “But if it helps keep our community safer then I’m all about it.”

Opting into the system would be a major change from how businesses currently share security footage with MSU Police, said Mark Rosen, vice president of MDI Real Estate, which owns a large complex on Grand River Avenue.

“They come to us and say ‘Yeah, there’s been a robbery and we need some footage,’ we do what we can,” he said. “We try to be good citizens.”

Ongoing access to the camera feeds in real time is a different question altogether, he said.

“At that point, it’s really a legal and privacy question, so we’d refer that to our attorney when (MSU reaches out),” he said.

Concerns over MSU’s system

MSU’s new surveillance system is one of many “campus safety updates" the university has boasted following the shooting

But experts say it would be largely unhelpful in another shooting situation, and more likely to deepen racial disparities in policing and target protesters.

“There’s nothing that explains to me how this would stop a shooting,” said Conor Healy, who researches security systems at the Internet Protocol Video Market, a security and surveillance industry research group.

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“If you, God forbid, intend to shoot a bunch of people on a campus, you usually don’t care if there’s a license plate reader,” he told The State News earlier this month. “A mass shooting scenario is generally not something technology can stop.”

Given the relative unlikeliness that another mass shooting will occur, Vogel said it’s important to see what surveillance measures will actually be used for.

Surveillance tools “are less likely to be used for preventing or responding to mass shootings as they are to create ways to criminalize people in and around Michigan State,” Vogel said.

Odis Johnson Jr., a professor at Johns Hopkins University who has researched school shootings and racial inequities in policing, said there are racial differences in whose behavior is deemed suspicious through surveillance.

His research — based on data from over 6,000 high school students in the U.S. — found that increased surveillance exacerbates racial and ethnic disparities in who is punished and who isn’t.

High schoolers facing discipline as a result of their activity being surveilled are four times more likely to be African American. Students who came from low-income and single-parent homes faced similar disparities, Johnson found.

Johnson says he expects the same disparities to appear at MSU under an expansion of its surveillance capabilities.

“A big concern is that these systems, when put within higher education environments, will lead to disproportionate honor code violations, code of ethics violations and some type of punishment,” he said.

The software’s sophisticated system for tracking crowds also raises civil liberties concerns, student activists say.

“If something were happening and people started to gather, the system would be able to say ‘I detect multiple people here,’ and we would then know about it,” said John Prush, director of public safety operations for MSU DPPS.

Though Prush doesn’t foresee the technology being used to track student demonstrations, activists aren’t convinced.

“It’s going to be used against student activists and groups protesting on campus,” member of Sunrise MSU and James Madison College Women of Color .Savitri Anantharaman said.

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