Revealed: How Big Brother watches you at university

A series of Freedom of Information requests to London’s major universities reveal the scope of surveillance and data gathering practices on students

An investigation based on a series of Freedom of Information requests to London’s major ranking universities reveals the growing number of CCTV camera installations across campuses, without adequate methods of measuring effectiveness. The investigation into 23 universities charts how data is logged within university campuses for access and attendance purposes, and how frequently students’ data is disclosed in compliance with requests by law enforcement officials.

London universities rank among the top 100 in the world, attracting 200,000 international students every year. While non-operational CCTV cameras are frequently used as a deterrent to campus crime, there is a lack of records on the number of occasions where CCTV footage has been used for mitigating actual crime on campus. With the introduction of the anti-radicalisation Prevent programme (which requires students’ communications on university servers to be monitored), and increase in CCTV cameras, academics and students complain of an atmosphere of paranoia on campuses where they feel ‘spied upon’.

The UK is home to around 5.9 million CCTV cameras, with 500,000 on the streets of London alone, making it one of the ‘surveillance capitals’ of the world. The passage of the Investigatory Powers Act, which extends state surveillance by legalising a range of interception and bulk hacking powers by law enforcement, has been sharply criticised as authoritarian, and challenged by privacy watchdog and digital rights groups like Privacy International, Open Rights Group, Electronic Frontier Foundation as well as NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.

Part 01: CCTV on campus
CCTV signage at University of Westminster/ Manisha Ganguly

We found the earliest record of a CCTV camera being installed on a London campus dating back to 1975, at Brunel University. This, incidentally, is the same year video surveillance systems were installed for the first time in four Underground train stations in England.

Our FOI requests reveal the total number of CCTV cameras currently installed across various campuses in London universities, as well as how many of them are operational:

Data Source: FOI requests/ Manisha Ganguly CC by SA

However, the data released on number of CCTV cameras installed is insufficient to determine the number of students per camera at each university, as the ratio depends on average population density on campus for which no data is available, as well as density of CCTV cameras by area across multiple campuses.

Data Source: FOI requests/ Manisha Ganguly CC by SA

The data on how many of the total CCTV cameras were installed in the past four years shows how universities like the University of West London had only upgraded their surveillance programs recently. The increase in CCTV cameras in some institutions is related to campus expansion or reconstruction, such as the 43 CCTVs installed in the new LSE Student Union bar as a condition of the licence.

Anne McKeown, Support Services Manager, University of London, said: “The deployment of CCTV cameras around campus is an important part of the College’s duty of care to our students, staff and visitors, and assists with the prevention, detection and investigation of crime against any of our students, staff or visitors, or against university property. Use of any CCTV footage is strictly governed by data protection and human rights law.”

A representative from London South Bank University told us: “CCTV have positive effect across the University. The University is able to investigate crime, respond in real time to incidents happening at building entrance areas /receptions and at night when incidents occurred within the perimeter of the campus.”

Measuring effectiveness of CCTVs on campus

Most universities responded stating they had no outcome-specific measures of effectiveness of CCTV on campus, such as how many instances of criminal activity were intercepted or how many criminals arrested as a result of captured footage, and that they were installed as a deterrant to crime. Kingston University however, had recorded 51 instances where CCTV evidence was used to intercept crime on campus in the past 5 years. London School of Economics disclosed signing over 60 CCTV images to the police for criminal investigations between 2014 and 2016.

“Surveillance at university fundamentally undermines what a university should be: spaces where ideas can be shared and discussed amongst students and staff without fears of repercussions. At some universities in London data gathering and CCTV footage has been used to threaten and discipline students taking political actions,” says Rosa Collins*, a student of History at LSE. “This is an authoritarian attack on students that especially impacts those with vulnerable immigration status.”

David Graeber, Professor of Anthropology at LSE, highlighted the lack of effectiveness of CCTV in preventing theft: “I’ve never heard of a case where the cameras helped in catching a thief or retrieving anything that was stolen. So you have to wonder what if anything they’re really for. Is it just about the possibility of student or worker protest? Or to make strangers feel uncomfortable.” LSE did not respond to requests for comment on whether the installation of CCTV cameras have improved life on campus

At UCL, Emmanuel Ordóñez Angulo, a PhD student of Philosophy, said his main concern was on-campus theft: “Say, if I don’t find my computer back at the place in the library I was occupying after a toilet/lunch break, there would be footage to track it.”

However, John Gilbert*, a professor at UCL, described an incident where his possession was stolen and not recovered as the CCTV camera at the scene was not operational: “I have a security camera positioned right outside my office — facing my door. I’ve always found it slightly invasive, but never gave it much thought. Then, about 3 years ago, a valuable book (a personal gift from the author) was stolen from the box on the door where people leave things for me. On inquiring after the CCTV footage for that afternoon, I discovered there was none. The camera was hardly ever active, if at all, and whatever footage might exist was not kept or archived in any way.”

Rosalind Rei, a student of History at King’s College, said campus surveillance created a culture of suspicion and paranoia: “I don’t want to study and interact in a monitored space, regardless of whether my individual data is anonymised.”

In response to whether CCTV is installed inside facilities provided for spiritual, religious and contemplative activities and practices, University College London stated they had one installed CCTV camera at each entry point “at the request and with the agreement of the UCL Union Societies”, and has received positive feedback from users of the space. Royal Holloway also disclosed that they have one CCTV installed in the room used for Friday congregational prayers, but noted that the room is not solely used for that purpose, accommodating lectures and orchestra rehearsals. In October of 2015, the University of Westminster had come under criticism from students for installing CCTV inside prayers rooms on all campuses without consulting with the Student Union.

Last week, the Surveillance Camera Commissioner Tony Porter unveiled a “passport to compliance” for organisations to meet the principles outlined in Surveillance Camera Code of Practice. However, compliance with this code does not guarantee that the organisation will be abiding by “other relevant legislation such as the Data Protection Act and Human Rights Act.”


Part 02: The Data Trail
Swipe-to-access turnstiles at the University of Westminster/ Manisha Ganguly

Within campuses, students’ access are regulated by electronic turnstiles which control entry to the premises itself, as well as restricted areas of the campus. Student ID cards, which are swiped at the turnstiles, are also used to log attendance records using electronic attendance monitors in classrooms at campuses such as University of Westminster. International students come to the UK on a Tier 4 visa, and are expected to meet a minimum attendance criterion as part of their visa requirements. Therefore, attendance records are monitored closely by university authorities: “If you miss your classes without prior agreement from the University then you will be reported to the Home Office.”

In our request, we asked for disclosure of the number of such ‘data logging points’ that record information or authenticate based on student ID cards, which have a unique identification number (student ID number) for scanning. The numbers below detail how many these points exist for access to the university premises and logging student attendance (the unspecified category refers to data logging points whose purpose was not outlined as belonging to either).

Data Source: FOI requests/ Manisha Ganguly CC by SA

Most universities stated they had ‘data logging points’ for access purposes. Birkbeck University stated they had an open access campus policy while Imperial College stated their data readers recorded “occupation rates” in lecture halls.

While University College London said their access control system “does record activity, but is not routinely used for attendance monitoring,” John*, who teaches there, said: “This apparently straightforward way of checking whether international students are attending courses doesn’t seem to in any way replace or reduce the number of other bureaucratic processes they have to go through to prove that they are in the country, doing what their visa permit was issued for them to do. I don’t understand why this level of scrutiny is necessary, or what is done with this information.”

In contrast, Emmanuel said he was not concerned about the data gathered on him by the university [UCL]: “I understand it is for statistical purposes.”

Data breaches and disclosure of student data

All London universities confirmed that they were in the process of digitising their records, while University of East London stated completion of digitisation of their full staff and student registry. Based on responses received, universities confirmed that student data is kept secure on systems that are regularly updated, with digital security maintained in-house. Except for St. George’s University which recorded 74 data breaches, other universities had either faced no instances in the past, or did not hold sufficient data to confirm the same. Following the 74 breaches at St. George’s over the past 7 years, the data was moved for off-site storage.

With regards to requests by law enforcement for disclosure of student information, 4 London universities, namely Kingston, Middlesex, Roehampton and Brunel, stated they had not received any. Of the responses received, Queen Mary University recorded the highest number of requests (80), of which it had complied with 66 under the Data Protection Act. While particulars of the requests are protected by the Act, the request revealed that of 26 of 47 cases where student data was made available to law enforcement by Queen Mary involved individuals of Asian or Black ethnicity. London South Bank University recorded the second highest number of metadata requests, with 53 from the police (30), fraud investigators (17) and local councils (6). LSE received two metadata requests from law enforcement, relating to males of Black and Asian ethnicity.

Tom Watson*, a student of Anthropology at SOAS university, said: “I am most concerned about SOAS compliance with Prevent Duty. SOAS has passed a deal with its security contractor that all 40 members of SOAS security staff will receive training related to Channel and Prevent. The wide range of measures being taken by SOAS to implement Prevent are alarming, especially as SOAS has been framed in the national media as a target institution for government anti-extremism programmes.”

In January of this year, King’s College London admitted, under mounting pressure from students, that it “monitored and recorded” students emails under the UK Government programme Prevent. The disclosure drew harsh criticism from the National Union of Students, whose President Malia Bouattia said: “NUS is deeply concerned about the impact that systematic monitoring of messages will have on students, particularly black and Muslim students and those involved in political campaigns, activities or research.”

Data point for attendance logging at University of Westminster/ Manisha Ganguly

The Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) described the monitoring and interception of student emails as “consistent with the Prevent guidance”. Under section 26 of Theresa May’s Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015, educators are required to monitor students’ behaviour for signs of ‘extremism’ so they can be referred to Channel, the government’s ‘deradicalisation’ programme. However, a report by Rights Watch UK published last year revealed how children as young as four were wrongly reported for mispronouncing words (in one case, “terraced house” mistaken for “terrorist house”). In April 2016, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and of Association when visiting the UK said: “It appears that Prevent is having the opposite of its intended effect: by dividing, stigmatizing and alienating segments of the population, Prevent could end up promoting extremism, rather than countering it.”

Miranda Jenkins*, a student of LSE who has been involved in on-campus protests, also mentioned the lack of transparency by universities when students’ metadata is disclosed to third parties. “Our activities as part of a student society were passed on by LSE Student Union to the charity commission for suspected support of a listed organisation. The willingness of the Student Union and the university to comply with such measures, especially when unfounded, are dangerous and worrying.”


In April of last year, at the Association of University Chief Security Officers annual conference, Tony Porter, the Surveillance Commissioner, advocated “a well-thought-out and designed CCTV system” which can be “an excellent weapon in the armoury of a university to show that student safety is of real importance to them”.

Referring to the Snowden leaks, he said that students deserved the right to privacy, but his concerns about unwarranted surveillance dealt with the fact that it was “not always good press”. He then proceeded to quote headlines describing instances where abuse of surveillance power has occurred in London educational institutions, asking his audience: “Do you want to be the next media story? Do you want your students to feel safe but not spied on?”

One of the reports he cites is by the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, based upon anonymous feedback from 7,500 union members. It includes instances of intimidation, such as one teacher who received an email from the deputy head, asking her to remind her class that they were being watched on camera. The union’s general secretary Chris Keates had said in response to the findings: “Lab rats have more professional privacy.”

*Names have been changed on request.

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