On Chicago streets, cameras are watching

Critics see the trend as an example of privacy rights sacrificed for security.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

If 'Big Brother' is coming to Henry Wilson's community on the South Side of Chicago, Mr. Wilson will be waiting enthusiastically.

He has lived in the tough Englewood neighborhood for more than four decades, and he applauds a police department initiative to place surveillance cameras in high-crime areas.

Law-abiding citizens have nothing to fear, he says: "If they're not involved with any illegal activity, they don't have anything to worry about."

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But others do worry. Chicago is the largest of a growing number of cities to use surveillance cameras to fight crime. Increasing concern for homeland security has helped tip the balance in favor of the new technologies. But critics see the trend as one more example of the way privacy rights are being sacrificed for the sake of security - a false security, some say - and one more step toward an Orwellian future where all activities are monitored by the government. They call it "surveillance creep."

"You put the cameras up today, then you start adding facial recognition technology, then you start recording it, then you don't just use them in high-crime areas," says Ed Yohnka of the American Civil Liberties Union. "We've seen just an explosion in the use of these types of technologies."

Though police departments and private firms have been using surveillance cameras for years, they have proliferated in the wake of Sept. 11. Baltimore has posted them in high-crime areas, Tampa has facial-recognition software that could theoretically pick a suspect out of a crowd, and the cameras have sprouted in Washington neighborhoods.

Chicago is taking the technology one step further, installing a system that can be accessed by officers using laptops in their squad cars. Police are placing the mobile units - perched atop light posts - in high-crime neighborhoods to discourage gang and drug activity and tackle a troubling homicide rate.

The cameras in these "surveillance pods" are encased in bullet-proof glass and can rotate 360 degrees, focus in on activity four blocks away, and see at night. They will be conspicuous, marked by a flashing blue light atop the pod, and police can take them down and move them to another hot spot within a couple of hours.

"In essence [we're] extending the eyes and the ears of the police officer," says Assistant Deputy Superintendent of Police Ron Huberman. "The camera acts as a force multiplier."

But critics are skeptical. The cameras may just push crime to the next block, they say. There is little evidence showing that cameras reduce crime - even in Britain, where it's estimated the average citizen is captured on video 300 times per day.

And privacy-rights advocates worry about misuse, wondering what will keep police from peering into homes or otherwise abusing the technology. "We shouldn't be so consumed with the idea that technology is the magic bullet that we don't put the type of strictures in place to ensure our constitutional protections," Mr. Yohnka says.

Shifting balance on civil liberties

The cameras may be about fighting gangs, drugs, and other urban crime, but many say it is the larger fears about terrorism that have created an environment where the balance has shifted away from civil liberties.

"It's definitely part and parcel of a climate of fear and heightened national security, which in one sense is understandable, but in another is open to abuse," says Andrew Ross, a New York University professor and cultural critic. The hastily passed Patriot Act and the proliferation of surveillance cameras are both signs we're moving too fast, he says. "It's much more difficult to dismantle these things than to put them in place."

But police and other proponents of the cameras say they're aware of the possibility for misuse - and that they've taken sufficient steps to guard against it. The International Association of Chiefs of Police has created policy guidelines on the use of technology and runs courses for law-enforcement officers.

"You don't have a presumption of privacy in public sections of the city," says John Firman, a researcher with the association. "If cameras are used with the right policies and procedures, privacy issues should never become a problem."

And within Chicago, police say the backdrop of growing crime is reason enough to use all available tools to fight it. The city has had 347 homicides so far this year and led the nation in murders through mid-July.

The view from a tough neighborhood

Englewood, where Wilson lives, is particularly bad. There have been 26 murders there this year, tying it for second among the city's 25 districts. Police there are overwhelmed. Weed-choked lots seem to outnumber businesses, and clerks in food and liquor stores work behind bullet-proof glass.

The Rev. Willard Payton, who grew up in Englewood and is currently the minister at the New Birth Church of God in Christ there, sees both sides of the surveillance-camera debate. He knows there's the potential for abuse with such technology. But he balances that against the realities of life in Englewood.

"Abandoned buildings, vacant lots, kids hanging on the corner, the obvious [criminal] activity in some areas," says Mr. Payton. "A blind man could see it."

He's also sensitive, though, to the civil rights issues. Sitting in his quiet sanctuary on a recent afternoon, wearing pressed brown slacks, a matching shirt, and an easy smile, Payton describes being pulled over a couple of times by the police. His guess: It was because he's black and was driving a nice car.

Still, he wouldn't mind seeing a camera go up if it would give residents in the church's neighboring senior housing a sense of security. "We recognize the potential problems that could develop, but I think they are outweighed by at least the sense of some kind of safety and security," he says.

He invites critics of the technology to visit the neighborhood.

"They need to come and spend a couple of months here, and not just one day. Just stand here and look out the window, look around, and they'll get a true feel of what's here."

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