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ACLU Urges Chicago to Halt Adding New Surveillance Cameras

Seeks to place restrictions “on the most invasive of the surveillance camera system features.”

Following the release of a report critical of Chicago’s integrated surveillance camera system, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Illinois is urging a moratorium on the placement of new surveillance cameras in the city.

The report—Chicago’s Video Surveillance Cameras: A Pervasive and Unregulated Threat to Our Privacy—says the actual number of cameras is not known, but Chicago officials do not dispute that the city “has access to 10,000 publicly and privately owned cameras.”

“In the downtown district, virtually every segment of the public way is under video surveillance. These technically sophisticated cameras have the power to automatically identify and track particular persons, and the capacity to magnify and make visible small details and object at great distances,” the report says.

Yet, despite those current capabilities, city officials seek “to expand and enhance the level of surveillance. Mayor (Richard) Daley has announced a plan to place a camera ‘on every corner’ of the city,” the report says.

As a result, the ACLU of Illinois has focused its recommendation for a moratorium on new surveillance cameras at candidates in the mayoral and aldermanic elections scheduled for Feb. 22, 2011, and has provided a copy of the document to all the candidates for mayor of Chicago, as well as current alderman and aldermanic candidates.

In addition to proposing a moratorium on new surveillance cameras, the report contains recommendations that seek to place restrictions “on the most invasive of the surveillance camera system features,” including facial recognition; automatic tracking; and zooming. It also urges increased controls on the storage and disclosure of images; transparency; and public input on the surveillance systems.

The ACLU of Illinois’ proposals include:

  • 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, especially when individuals are engaged in First Amendment protected activity.
  • Prohibiting the recording of activity in private areas (such as residences and private businesses).
  • Banning the dissemination of images captured by the cameras except under specific circumstances.
  • Requiring public notice and the opportunity for public input before a camera is installed in the City of Chicago.

“Given Chicago’s history of unlawful political surveillance, including the notorious ‘Red Squad,’ (a group of Chicago police officers who targeted lawful political organizations for destruction) it is critical that appropriate controls be put in place to rein in these powerful and pervasive surveillance cameras now available to law enforcement throughout the city,” said Harvey Grossman, legal director of the ACLU of Illinois.

“Unlike other cities, Chicago has not adopted necessary safeguards. 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,” he said.