Chicago Mayor Wants More Surveillance Cameras

Published May 1, 2009

Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley (D) says if his Olympic dreams come true, by 2016 there will be a surveillance camera on “every street corner in Chicago”—a statement that has raised concerns among technology and privacy experts.

“We’re going to grow the system until we eventually cover one end of the city to the other,” Ray Orozco, executive director of Chicago’s Office of Emergency Management and Communications, told reporters earlier this year. Chicago has been developing its surveillance network for several years.

In 2004 the city installed 250 cameras at locations thought to be at high risk of a terrorist attack and linked them—along with 2,000 existing city cameras—to the city’s 911 dispatch center.

Fear of ‘Surveillance Society’

A similar system exists in Washington, DC. London, England has greatly expanded its camera surveillance system in the past decade—with the footage of the bombings by jihadists on July 7, 2005 ending up on newscasts worldwide.

“We’ve been debating the pros and cons of this surveillance society over the last 10, 20, 30 years,” said Jeff Kagan, an Atlanta, Georgia-based telecom and wireless analyst. “On one hand, from the perspective of giving up our personal freedom, this is still a big problem.

“On the other hand, this surveillance—even if it does not curb criminal acts—at least offers some record of events to help in prosecution,” Kagan said.

“But the cameras can also be used to invade our privacy,” Kagan added. “Traffic cameras can be helpful, but cameras on streets can be invasive. That’s why this is a debate we will keep having.”

Cameras Accepted in London

Mark Novak, global vice president of sales in the London office of Vigilant Technology Ltd., a Tel Aviv-based provider of network technology for surveillance efforts, said there were similar concerns when the cameras were installed in London in the early 1990s.

Now, however, the cameras are widely accepted by Londoners, and crime in the covered areas has dropped, Novak says.

“The public view now is almost wholly positive,” Novak said.

Impact Questioned

Harold J. Krent, dean and professor at the Chicago-Kent College of Law, said there is some evidence widespread use of surveillance cameras in London and Washington, DC led to some lowering of crime rates in the targeted areas. But he added, “It’s not clear if the crime disappears or just moves somewhere else.

“Crime may be just dispersed into the countryside,” Krent said. “There are so many variables that go into calculating the crime rate. It’s hard to measure the impact of just the surveillance cameras.”

Krent added the surveillance cameras would provide another small step toward the “Big Brother” world of George Orwell’s dystopic novel 1984. Tollway scanners, government GPS-based systems, and other technologies all provide little slices of information that make it very easy to monitor people electronically nearly around the clock, he said.

“People have become accustomed to scanners at airports, public buildings, and other venues, so any outcry over the use of the surveillance cameras would probably wear off over time,” Krent said.

Government Use Problematic

The main issue, Krent said, is how the government uses the information it collects through surveillance.

“There would have to be tight protocols in place to ensure that the video isn’t used for wrong purposes,” Krent said. “So far, we haven’t been told how long videos would be kept [and] the hurdles one would have to overcome to see the videos, and there are still lingering concerns about privacy.”

Novak agreed, saying there are strict protocols for use and retention of the videos in London. He said similar rules should be worked out for any installation of such equipment in any U.S. location.

Lawyers Getting the Videos?

For example, officials would have to make sure an elected official couldn’t have access to the video just to watch someone’s activities, Novak said.

Krent points out lawyers would do everything they could to get their hands on such video information for use in court cases such as custody and divorce proceedings, which would go far beyond the intent of the surveillance.

Phil Britt ([email protected]) writes from South Holland, Illinois.