Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
Last Friday, Public Safety sent out a campus wide email regarding a camera found recording in the first floor bathroom of the Cornell Science Library. The camera was found at approximately noon; the student who discovered it immediately removed it and took it to the Dean’s Office. Public Safety is continuing its investigation of the incident.
The camera, a Canon digital camera, was camouflaged under the plastic lining of the trashcan in the Cornell bathroom. It was most likely placed there after an EVS technician cleaned the bathroom, around 830 am. The student who discovered it saw the red light and immediately removed it from the bathroom, taking it to Myrt Westphal, Associate Dean of Student Life.
Westphal subsequently emailed Director of Public Safety Owen Redgrave, ITS Director Gayle Barton, and Student Life Dean Braun. Barton sent Nick Hannon, Information Security Analyst, to look at the camera and ensure it was not transmitting the images onto the internet. Hannon determined that the camera did not have internet capability.
Afterwards, there was a debate surrounding who should examine the tape and how should it be done. Redgrave said, “We discussed it, and in consideration of the people that may have been caught on the camera, we wanted to limit anyone viewing it, even our staff, to the bare necessities.” Westphal and Public Safety decided to have the camera examined by a female officer, due to concerns of privacy and confidentiality.
“It was a little bit like a hot potato,” said Westphal. “Nobody wanted the camera and no one wanted to see what was on it.”
Officer Kathleen Agostinelli only looked at the first few frames, approximately five to ten seconds of the videotaping, to see if the culprit was on the film. After determining that the recording did not film the culprit, Public Safety put it in the locked evidence room of Public Safety.
The announcement on Friday said that the contents of the memory card “will be destroyed without additional review.” Prior to Public Safety assessing the film, there is no evidence that the contents of the memory card have been used.
On the reaction to this violation of students’ privacy, Westphal described, “I was just dumbfounded. My first response was this job is always presenting with surprises. You never know what’s going to walk through the door.” To Westphal and Redgrave’s knowledge, an incident like this has never occurred at Swarthmore College before.
The situation was very contained: no one at Cornell Library was aware of the camera until after the public safety bulletin. Science Librarian Meg Spencer said, “The student who discovered the camera didn’t tell anyone here in the library. By the time I heard about it, it was a done deal.” The Gazette attempted to interview the student worker behind the circulation desk at Cornell at the time the camera was placed. The student, per the request of library supervisors, declined to comment.
Public Safety is keeping options open for finding the culprit. They are unsure whether he or she is a member of the College community, since the library is open to area residents. “The bottom line,” Redgrave said, “is that the proportion of people who had access to the bathroom are overwhelmingly college folks, but it’s not restricted [from] the outside community.”
ITS is currently working with the camera in an attempt to discover previously deleted files on the memory card. Hannon explained, “The intent is to potentially find an image of the camera owner that someone might be able to identify.” This process could take several days to complete.
As for incidents that might occur like this in the future, Westphal was unsure whether this is a one-off event or if it might be repeated. She explained, “I believe in the good in people. I feel that somebody made a one-off mistake and that’s the sense that I have until proven otherwise.”
A priority for the Dean’s Office and Public Safety, however, is to ensure that this event does not reoccur. Westphal emphasized, “We really just want to prevent this from happening again, to me that’s more important than catching who did it.”