No More Cameras: ACLU

Does Chicago's surveillance system violate First Amendment rights?

In the interest of protecting residents' privacy, the American Civil Liberties Union wants Chicago to stop putting up surveillance cameras.

The ACLU, in a report released Tuesday (.pdf), says Chicagoans are the most "watched" people in the country and expanding the surveillance system goes against citizens' First Amendment rights.

Chicago Police use a network of 1,260 cameras on city streets, but there are thousands more throughout the city, the report points out, including 4,500 in schools, 1,800 on CTA buses and trains, and 1,000 at O'Hare. That's not to mention others on skyscrapers and at Navy Pier. 

Specifically, the ACLU cites three "potentially invasive technologies associated with the cameras:

  • The cameras can pan, tilt and zoom...
  • The cameras have facial recognition software, making it possible for authorities to search for a particular person...
  • The cameras have an "automatic tracking" feature, which allows them to follow a subject as it moves in and out of view of adjacent cameras.

To protect the the rights and privacy of citizens, the ACLU would like to see several safeguards put into place.  Among the "most important," according to the organization, are those which prohibit the use of pan/tilt/zoom and tracking features without "probable cause."

Mayor Richard Daley on Tuesday defended the use the cameras.

"We have very, very strict rules in regards to this, in regards to the cameras," he said.  "We're not spying on anybody.  This is the public way.  We're not spying or identifying anyone, or racial profiling anyone.  We are not."

Do residents feel invaded or protected?

City officials told the Sun-Times it's the latter, that the city's cameras give people a sense of security. Ald. Ed Burke pointed to Chicago's successful 911 center, which utilizes street cameras in high-crime areas.

Some mayoral candidates agree that the cameras can be effective in stopping crime but said that citizens deserve peace of mind if the city is going to use them.

"Here is another example of how we need transparency in the city of Chicago," said Miguel del Valle.

"The city has an obligation for a level of trust between those who provide public safety to the public, which means more transparency and information about those cameras," added Rahm Emanuel.

A spokesman for Gery Chico said the cameras are a useful tool but do not take the place of boots on the ground and that now is not the time to consider removing any tools that are currently helping police officers protect residents, said spokeswoman Brooke Anderson.

The ACLU maintains that the millions of dollars spent on camera technology could have been repurposed for more police officers, pointing out that the cameras resulted in less than 1 percent of arrests from 2006 to May 2010.

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