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January 9, 2010

When it comes to surveillance cameras, Chicago is the new London


Long story (by William M. Bulkeley in the November 17, 2009 Wall Street Journal) short: "15,000 cameras have been connected in what the city [Chicago] calls Operation Virtual Shield, its fiber-optic video-network loop."

Pales beside London's estimated 500,000 (that was in 2005; no doubt the number is far higher today), but give Chicago time.

Excerpts follow.


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.

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 [executive director responsible for the system] 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.

January 9, 2010 at 02:01 PM | Permalink


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Gotta be careful where we pick our noses eh? Darn goofy cops ogling those women. What else is new? Looks like George O had it right, just a few years off in his timing.

Posted by: Tamra | Jan 10, 2010 4:35:47 AM

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