USC's Department of Public Safety is using advanced technology, including behavioral analytics software and dozens of license plate cameras, to monitor crime on and around campus, according to its latest annual report.
The 106-page document, which covers crime, safety and security at USC in 2015, was distributed to students via e-mail late Friday.
Overall, the crime rate at USC remained relatively stable from 2014 to 2015.
A section of the report on technology noted that there are now 203 surveillance cameras on campus, including 69 dedicated to reading and storing license plates. Recently passed California Senate Bill No. 34 requires all public agencies that use these automated license plate readers to disclose how long they retain the data collected and what they do with it. Although a USC official said the university does not have to comply with the measure because it is is a private non-profit institution, one major privacy advocacy organization insisted that at least some disclosure is required.
"Under the law, USC is required to post a disclosure on its website of how it uses the policies as well as what they are doing to protect privacy and civil liberties with those cameras," said Dave Maass, investigative researcher at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), who has studied USC's crime cameras.
Senate Bill No. 34 supported Maass and said all agencies – public and private alike – are required to disclose certain information about the data available on their website.
In an interview, DPS Assistant Chief David Carlisle provided new details about how the surveillance systems work.
Through the license plate recognition cameras, DPS only collects license plate information, which is constantly visible and therefore public, Carlisle said.
"We don't have the ability to access any database to gather personal information; only LAPD does. We don't store any personal data here," he said.
Carlisle said that the department generally retains the data for 30 days, but may keep it longer if it becomes part of an investigation.
Even though license plates are public, other issues arise with the cameras themselves.
One major concern cited by privacy advocates with such systems is the public's privacy.
The EFF published an article in October 2015 about how automated license plate recognition (ALPR) systems are at a great risk of being hacked because they are "individually connected to the internet and freely accessible online to anyone." This leaves the public's privacy at risk of a data breach.
The EFF article noted that USC's license plate recognition cameras are part of this system. These cameras form a network that automatically takes pictures of every passing car, and stores each car's license plate number.
Dave Maass and Cooper Quintin, the authors of the EFF article, examined USC's use of ALPR and its risk of being hacked. Within their investigation, they found that USC's cameras were easy to find through obvious URLs, such as Pipscam7.usc.edu.
USC had a high number of ALPR cameras, but a few of these cameras were entirely exposed to the public and easy to access, the authors reported. One such camera can still be found across from the Pi Kappa Phi house on the Row. In addition to being clearly visible from the street, it captured footage of cars and people. (DPS has since secured the camera.)
Maass and Quintin said that they discussed their findings with USC DPS Chief John Thomas and that the issues were resolved. But Maass said that as USC expands its surveillance system, new questions arise, such as citizens' privacy.
"License plate readers in general are concerning because they collect data on everyone regardless of suspicion. They capture your movements, and in aggregate, they can reveal your driving patterns," said Maass. "They might be able to reveal who you're visiting, at least – perhaps your doctors you visit, perhaps where you go to worship. In general, how you travel on a regular visit."
As part of its security program, as the report explains, DPS uses "daily predictive policing strategies," which means it analyzes statistical data to try to predict the location and time that a certain crime may occur. To do this, DPS uses an artificial intelligence software called Avataa Intelligence. (The report refers to this software as Armorway Solutions but the company's name has changed.)
Avataa is a security software that stores all of DPS's data and analytics in one place. It is described as a proactive software that analyzes past data and helps officers determine when and where a threat may appear and how they can snuff it out.
Linking to Avataa, DPS uses two types of cameras around campus to monitor crime: video patrol surveillance cameras and license plate recognition cameras. They are on 24/7, monitor criminal activity, and document crimes as they take place. License plate recognition cameras, which are typically placed at intersections, are designed to alert authorities if a car is believed to be linked to criminal activity.
These cameras may allow security threats to be prevented more easily, but some people, including students, think this is concerning.
"If I had a car, I really wouldn't want my licenses plate to be tracked or my movements to be tracked," said first year Masters student Suhail Ansari. "The idea of me being tracked without my explicit permission seems very malicious to me. It's not explicitly malicious, but it seems like that."
For now, most students at USC are incognizant of the cameras and their risk. And some don't even care.
"We're choosing to be here. No one's really doing anything suspicious or anything, so we shouldn't worry about it," said USC Junior Adam Rudow. "This is their school so I kind of feel like they do what they want to do."
Correction: A previous version of this story misstated that the technology DPS is using is new. The technology has been used by DPS since 2013.