Extensive Surveillance System Integrates Nonpolice Video, Raises Concerns About Possible Privacy Abuses
Workers in Chicago's Office Of Emergency Management
A giant web of video-surveillance cameras has spread across Chicago, aiding police in the pursuit of criminals but raising fears that the City of Big Shoulders is becoming the City of Big Brother.
While many police forces are boosting video monitoring, video-surveillance experts believe Chicago has gone further than any other U.S. city in merging computer and video technology to police the streets. The networked system is also unusual because of its scope and the integration of nonpolice cameras.
The city links the 1,500 cameras that police have placed in trouble spots with thousands more—police won't say how many—that have been installed by other government agencies and the private sector in city buses, businesses, public schools, subway stations, housing projects and elsewhere. Even home owners can contribute camera feeds.
Rajiv Shah, an adjunct professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago who has studied the issue, estimates that 15,000 cameras have been connected in what the city calls Operation Virtual Shield, its fiber-optic video-network loop.
The system is too vast for real-time monitoring by police staffers. But each time a citizen makes an emergency call, which happens about 15,000 times a day, the system identifies the caller's location and instantly puts a video feed from the nearest camera up on a screen to the left of the emergency operator's main terminal. The feeds, including ones that weren't viewed in real time, can be accessed for possible evidence in criminal cases.
A police spokesman said the system has "aided in thousands of arrests." Video cameras caught 16-year-old Michael Pace, an alleged Chicago gang member, opening fire with a 40-caliber handgun on a city bus in a 2007 incident that claimed the life of 16-year-old honor student Blair Holt and wounded four others. In July, Mr. Pace pleaded guilty to murder on the eve of his trial, and the video was released during a hearing where a judge sentenced him to 100 years in jail.
The city is "allowing first responders access to real-time visual data," said Ray Orozco, executive director of the city department responsible for the system. "Chicago understands the importance of networking instead of just hanging cameras," said Roger Rehayem of International Business Machines Corp., which designed the system. Former U.S. Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff has called Chicago's use of cameras "a model for the country."
That worries some Chicagoans. Charles Yohnka, director of communications and public policy for the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, said, "With the unbelievably rapid expansion of these systems, we'd like to know when enough is enough."
The ACLU has been calling, so far without success, for the city to disclose how many cameras are in the system and what the capabilities of the system are, as well as who is allowed to look at the video feeds and under what circumstances.
Mr. Yohnka said that he isn't aware of any abuses in the use of the video but that "political surveillance" of opponents could be tempting for office holders. In other cities there have been reports of male police staffers ogling and tracking women for extensive periods though they aren't doing anything suspicious.
Mr. Orozco dismisses worries about privacy abuse. The department logs in all users and can monitor what they are doing, he said, assuring accountability. He also said access to the command center is tightly controlled. He declined to discuss specifics of who is allowed inside the center.
Chicago said that it only networks video cameras in public areas where people have an expectation they may be seen. None of the cameras record speech, because that would violate wire-tapping laws, although some can detect the sound of gunfire and breaking glass.
"People want these cameras in their neighborhoods," said Mayor Richard Daley in a prepared statement. "We can't afford to have a police officer on every corner, but cameras are the next best thing."
While video-surveillance cameras are ubiquitous in most of the developed world, they're primarily used to collect evidence that can be examined after a crime has been committed.
The Chicago system is also designed to deal with emergencies as they happen. Besides turning on when people call 911, some are set to sound alerts at command centers if people enter closed areas after hours, and some also issue spoken warnings at the site.
At the Navy Pier amusement area, cameras monitor an inlet that only official boats are allowed to enter. When the system detects recreational boats in the area, a warning to move away is issued over a loudspeaker.
It's difficult to tell how much Chicago's system cuts crime. The city's crime rates have declined steadily over the last 10 years, like those in many other cities.
Chicago police started installing highly visible cameras topped by flashing blue lights back in 2003. Many were placed at locations where residents had complained about drug-dealing, and the city later said that crime decreased up to 30% in areas with cameras. But some critics complained that the cameras just pushed drug dealers to nearby street corners.
Even if cameras don't prevent crimes, "prosecution is much quicker," said Fredrik Nilsson, general manager of Axis North America, a unit of a Swedish company that makes the digital cameras used in Chicago. "When people face recorded videos, they don't go through court trials."