Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/news.aspx?id=220219
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Mackenzie Allen/MEDILL

Hundreds of people enjoyed the sun in Millennium Park, most probably unaware that security cameras may be watching. Millennium Park is one of the many city agencies that has partnered with Chicago's surveillance system.


Big Brother is watching, but are Chicago cameras helping?

by Mackenzie Allen
April 17, 2013


"I don't think there is another city in the U.S. that has as an extensive and integrated camera network as Chicago has," said Michael Chertoff, former secretary of Homeland Security.

Chicago, although the third largest city in the country, has the largest number of surveillance cameras with estimates placing the total number at more than 10,000, a number that concerns privacy advocates.

Camera advocates say they help to deter and solve crimes, but groups like the ACLU worry about the potential of the system to invade personal privacy.

Chicago’s camera network is based in part on a combination of policecameras, those clearly identified with flashing blue lights most often found on the top of telephone poles, more discrete cameras placed at city agencies, including Chicago Public Schools, Chicago Housing Authority, Chicago Transit Authority, Chicago Parks Department, Millennium Park and Solider Field, as well as privately owned cameras that the city has been granted access to.

“What concerns is simply that we are reaching a point of saturation when you look at the combinations of both the public cameras that are linked to the system, and you combine that with the private cameras that have been linked into the system,” said Ed Yohnka, spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois.

Police and FBI in Boston sifted through surveillance frame by frame following the bombing and on Wednesday police sources reported that surveillance from a Lord & Taylor store was being used to identify a suspect.

Investigative use of cameras, where officers review footage after the fact to recreate an event, is difficult due to the resources required, said Rajiv Shah, a video surveillance expert who teaches in the communications department at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

“Cameras are usually just one part of the overall policing tactic, so just throwing cameras out there doesn’t really help at all,” Shah said. “You could get rid of 80 percent of the cameras in Chicago and it isn’t going to affect the police’s ability to reduce crime.”

An Urban Institute study from September 2011 showed that crime was reduced in Humboldt Park but not in West Garfield Park after cameras were installed.

“There really isn’t any good data for Chicago on whether our cameras reduce crime," Shah said. “The city has their own kind of statistics, but those aren’t very rigorous from an analytical standpoint. Often it is hard to separate out what happens with the cameras versus the other things the police do when they focus on an area. Usually the cameras are tied to a bunch of other tactics the police are using.”

Yohnka is concerned that the camera system crosses the line between protecting the public and endangering their personal privacy. Of special note to the ACLU are the abilities of the cameras to zoom in on and track a subject.

“There is no question that these cameras, given their capacity and given their link to technology, have the ability to invade individual privacy,” Yohnka said. “If they are going to be deployed, what we believe is essential is a very well-defined, incredibly detailed and open set of policies that protect individual privacy.”

Yohnka said the ACLU requests for information related to camera misuse have been denied.

The city did not respond to numerous requests for comment.

“That kind of government surveillance is just rife for abuse and misuse and yet the city refuses to share even a limited amount of information about how they oversee the system, about what rules are in place,” Yohnka said.

Still, not everyone is concerned about Big Brother looking over their shoulder. Chicago resident Tula Goglak had been unaware of the breadth of the city’s camera system, but supports efforts to make the city safer.

“It’s a large city with a lot of different people, so I don’t really have any issues with being videotaped in the event that something should happen,” Goglak said while visiting Millenium Park. “At least the person would be caught and the city would be safer at least. I wouldn’t be somebody that would be hurting anybody so I don’t have anything to hide.”