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ACLU calls for ban on new Chicago surveillance cameras

The City of Chicago’s integrated surveillance camera system poses a pervasive and unregulated threat to privacy and it shouldn’t be expanded until the city imposes some rules on its use, said the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois.

Chicago’s “Operation Virtual Shield” is a massive, networked, city-wide system of cameras that was implemented using Department of Homeland Security grants. Since 2006, about 1,500 police cameras have been linked into the system from crime trouble spots around the city, but thousands of other privately-owned cameras on buildings and other facilities around the city are also networked.

The ACLU study, released on Feb. 8, noted that advanced capabilities in the cameras make them a more invasive threat than ordinary static surveillance cameras used in other cities. The Chicago cameras have zoom capacity allowing operators to see small objects and features at great distances and at many times their normal size. They are also equipped with facial recognition capabilities that enable computers to automatically search for a particular person's face. The also are equipped with automatic tracking capacity allowing them to continuously monitor a person or vehicle moving in public, jumping from one camera to the next. The city, said the organization, doesn’t have rules governing the use of those technologies in observing citizens in public.

The group recommended requiring individualized suspicion either of criminal activity or a threat to public safety before a camera operator uses the zoom, facial recognition or automatic tracking technologies. It also said the city should prohibit recording of activity in private areas, like residences and private businesses.

It added that the city bar dissemination of stored images captured by the cameras except under specific circumstances and require public notice and the opportunity for public input before a camera is installed.

The report, funded in part by a grant from the Open Society Institute of New York City, was issued ahead of the city’s upcoming mayoral elections in hopes of getting some notice from candidates.

"Unlike other cities, Chicago has not adopted necessary safeguards,” said Harvey Grossman, legal director of the ACLU of Illinois. “We believe that a new Mayor or City Council should order a moratorium on deploying new cameras, evaluate whether to remove some of the current cameras, and adopt appropriate regulations to protect against unwarranted violations of privacy."

Aside from the privacy concerns, the ACLU said the city should also compare the costs of cameras with the cost-benefit of actual police officers.

“The report stresses that part of the City's considerations should include the cost of cameras and their effectiveness compared to the value of a police officer at a time when the City's police force is down more than 1,000 officers,” it said. Studies have shown, said the group, that surveillance systems may not be that effective at stopping crime.

“A 2009 study of surveillance cameras in San Francisco, conducted by the University of California at Berkley, found that cameras had no ‘statistically significant impact on violent crime’ or ‘drug crime.’” Another study by the University of Southern California of all domestic studies on surveillance cameras in the United States could find no statistically significant impact on crime as a result of the presence of surveillance cameras, it said.