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Rice disables EarthCam to review use amid student concerns

Courtesy Brandon Martin.

By Keegan Leibrock     1/14/22 4:29pm

Rice has disabled an EarthCam overlooking the Academic Quad after students raised concerns regarding its usage. The camera delivered a 24/7 feed, visible both on the Rice University and EarthCam websites. 

Sammi Johnson, a Duncan College senior, said she believes there was a lack of student input on the camera’s installment.

“One of the biggest problems with the EarthCam’s installment is that there was no student input or announcement that we would be livestreamed 24/7 throughout the entirety of our time at Rice,” Johnson said. “This camera provides [livestream viewers] with a lot of information about students whether or not administration wants to admit that.”

Doug Miller, Rice’s director of news and media relations, said that the EarthCam is situated in such a way that makes visible passerby unidentifiable.

“The camera is high above the ground six stories over sidewalks,” Miller said. “The shot is so wide that people walking on the sidewalks look so small you can't make out any distinguishing features … You can get the image and do a digital enlargement, but the camera lens itself can't zoom in to get a clearer picture anybody's face”

Johnson said in her and peers’ experience this is not true. In a response to the Rice University Twitter post, students included screenshots of zoomed in shots of the camera.

“[Rice Administration] has gone on record saying that you can’t zoom in on the camera while we have evidence that you can,” Johnson said. “[The administration] also said you can't identify students on the camera but we did a field test for one of our friends and, if you know what someone is wearing, you can very easily spot them out.”

William Tsai, the Will Rice College Student Association senator, said the EarthCam could possibly deter student protestors from participating in the Down with Willy movement.

“A concern that has been brought to me is that [the EarthCam] may deter people from joining the movement,” Tsai, a sophomore, said. “We don’t know who is watching the livestreams at any point in time so there is that concern of deterring students … For example, a student from a conservative household’s parents may be watching the livestream and this could raise issues at home.”

Laura Fagbemi, a senior at Hanszen College, said she believes the camera is intended to protect the statue from vandalism.

“So far, [Rice administration] has said that the camera is only to provide beauty shots of the campus, and this is questionable because the building the camera is meant to be showing is on the side view of the camera,” Fagbemi said. “The statue of Willy is right in the middle of the camera’s view and is pretty obviously the focus of what the camera is showing at all times.”

Jerry Templeton, a freshman from Duncan, said that he believes the camera may have been intended to monitor the Willy statue for protection against vandalism.

“It just goes to show how much the school prioritizes [Willy’s] statue over their own students’ concerns for their safety,” Templeton said. “As a student of color, as an African American student, I feel like they're putting a statue above me which isn't a great feeling.”

Miller said the camera’s intent is not to monitor the William Marsh Statue.

“[Rice University Police Department] already has a camera overlooking the academic quad area,” Miller said. “There has been a camera overlooking the quad for quite some time but only RUPD has access to look at it.”

Tsai said he is worried that the EarthCam would allow for stalking as well as hindering students’ basic right to privacy on campus.

“There is the issue of stalking and there’s also a much more basic right to privacy,” Tsai said. “When I’m walking across the quad to go to Fondren Library or to class I shouldn’t have to be watched by some stranger on the internet; that’s a very basic right.” 

In an email to several students obtained by the Thresher, President David Leebron said Rice will not turn the camera back on until they have an opportunity to hear from students and address their concerns, especially from the SA and student representatives. 

“At this point, I don't know what the outcome of those conversations will be, as it's clear that more information needs to be exchanged before any decision can be reached,” Leebron wrote.

This story will be updated as more information is received.

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