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On Chicago streets, cameras are watching

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

By Andrew BuchananSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / July 30, 2003


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

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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."

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