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Surveillance Cameras in Chicago: Extensive, Pervasive and Unregulated

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February 9, 2011

Yesterday, the ACLU of Illinois released a new report detailing the threats to privacy Chicagoans face under the watchful eyes of that city’s growing surveillance camera system. The report is the first large-scale, independent study of the city’s integrated surveillance system — a system former Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff deemed the most “extensive and integrated” in the nation.

Perhaps most stunning in this age of continuing economic hardship are the report’s details about the staggering cost of purchasing, installing, maintaining and manning the Windy City’s Big Brother. While the ranks of Chicago police officers drop due to lack of funding, more than $60 million has been spent on the city’s surveillance camera network.

And to what end?

Numerous studies by independent scholars have found that video surveillance cameras do not actually reduce violent crime. For example, a 2009 study of surveillance cameras in San Francisco found that cameras had no “statistically significant impact on violent crime” or “drug crime,” and a 2008 report of Los Angeles’s cameras found no statistically significant impact on violent crime, property crime or quality of life crime (such as prostitution or public drunkenness).

The Chicago Tribune‘s Steve Chapman might have put it best last year:

A more complete assessment indicates that when it comes to preventing and solving crimes, the cameras are about as useful as a pet rock. Britain has 4 million of them, but a 2005 report by the British government found little evidence to justify the effort. Video surveillance, it said, “produced no overall effect” on crime.

(That British report, “Assessing the Impact of CCTV,” is especially relevant given that the U.K. is, according to a 2007 Privacy International assessment, an “endemic surveillance society.”)

Despite this, city officials hope to expand the city’s surveillance cameras system even more, making, in the words of Chicago Mayor Richard Daly, a camera “on every corner” a reality.

More details, including how the camera system can chill First Amendment rights, has not solved crimes and has cut into other crucial law enforcement efforts like community policing, are in the report Chicago’s Video Surveillance Cameras: A Pervasive and Unregulated Threat to Our Privacy.

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