Editors Note: An update has been added to the end of this article to reflect the most current responses of University adminstration and People and Planet, following the original publication of this article.
The University of Edinburgh security staff have been equipped with body camera devices to be used to identify student protesters, a University spokesperson has revealed.
The video recording devices are located within the ID card neck lanyards security staff wear when on duty. The first instance in which their presence was noted was at a peaceful protest at the University’s Careers Fair on 4 October.
The protest, staged by student activist group People and Planet, was in opposition to the presence of Barclays Banking Company at the fair. Student protesters lay down in front of the Barclays stall in a ‘die in’ style protest, drawing attention from the Barclays’ volunteers, student visitors to the fair, and Careers Fair supervisors.
As the protest progressed, a member of People and Planet informed The Student that a Careers Fair administrator had issued a warning to the students that they would be recorded and individually identified, so as to charge them with disciplinary actions.
The University has since confirmed this rumour of such cameras being used at protests, telling The Student: “Our security staff routinely carry body worn cameras to support the safety and wellbeing of our staff, our students, our visitors and the officers themselves. On the occasion of the careers event, the cameras aided an early understanding and response to the small disruption that took place.”
Students both from People and Planet and other activists groups on campus have expressed their displeasure at this new security measure. A student who was part of the Careers Fair protest on 4 October, disagreed that there was any threat to safety or wellbeing at the protest significant enough to warrant the use of any such cameras.
“While the use of body cameras may be appropriate in some situations, such an obviously peaceful protest did not merit their use. In this case, their deployment seemed to be primarily designed to intimidate any of the protesters who didn’t want to be on film, rather than in response to any real threat to students and staff,” they told The Student.
People and Planet also issued a statement in reaction to the University’s statement. They a specifically drew attention to what they refer to as “intimidation” tactics which have been used in the past prior to the acquisition of these security cameras.
“In May, the University threatened six students with disciplinary action for their involvement in a peaceful and lawful protests – the allegation provoked an angry backlash from students and staff, several thousand of whom signed an open letter condemning the University’s actions, and was later dropped by the University,” the spokesperson said.
“Similarly, last April, a leaked internal document revealed that the University’s management planned to take a more “top down” approach in dealing with student activism, and recommend that the University monitor the social media accounts of students involved in on-campus campaigning,” they continued.
“This most recent surveillance measure is evidence that University is seeking to crack down on students’ right to protest peacefully. By keeping tabs on individual students, and intimidating those who criticise it, the University is attempting to create an oppressive and stifling environment on campus in which students will feel too uncomfortable to express dissent. We unambiguously condemn this worrying development.”
Despite the apparent controversy around the deployment of these devices, the security staff themselves should not be held accountable for their use, according to student protesters.
Speaking to The Student on the day of the Careers Fair, a veteran member of People and Planet said that the student activists have a long-running relationship with many members of security.
“They are all really nice guys. We have friendships with them from previous occupations. It’s the organisers of the careers fair who are on edge,” they told The Student.
Update: 3pm, 5/11/2016
In response to the publication of this article, University administration would like to clarify that they do not consider the security cameras in question to be hidden, and that they work to ensure students under surveillance are informed of the cameras’ usage.
The University spokesperson wished to amend their previous statement to add that: “When in use the body worn cameras are visible upon our security staff and any students or staff being filmed would be made aware of the recording of footage.”
In response to the amended statement, a People and Planet spokesperson told The Student that they did not believe the University’s claims of transparency and accountability are viable.
“The cameras used were hidden as lanyards around the security guards necks and were not obviously marked until they were in use by security. The fact that the cameras were not easily identifiable as cameras indicates that they were in fact hidden cameras,” they said.
Regarding the University’s claim that students are made aware of the camera’s usage, the spokesperson responded: “The fact that security staff have begun wearing film recording equipment was only made aware to People and Planet at their peaceful protest at the Careers Fair. However, we would like to emphasise that the University did not explicitly tell all the students, only some that they spoke to, at that protest that they were in fact being filmed.
“It was only brought to light after the security had begun filming and some of the students noticed their usage. It was then up to our own initiative to warn all the students present that the University were filming them,” the spokesperson said.
A similar account was given by a student who took part in the People and Planet occupation of Old College in April. Speaking to The Student anonymously following the publication of the article, they recounted: “During the April demonstration, I noticed one of the security tapped the the top of their badge and the camera flashed green twice to record me. It was unbelievable.”
Image: Jacob Forsyth-Davies