The first large-scale, independent study of Chicago's integrated surveillance camera system, deemed by a former Homeland Security Secretary to be the most "extensive and integrated" in the nation calls for a moratorium on the placement of new surveillance cameras in the City of Chicago. The ACLU of Illinois report is titled "Chicago's video surveillance cameras: A pervasive and unregulated threat to our privacy."

In addition to seeking the moratorium, the report contains a list of recommendations -- focusing on the most invasive of the surveillance camera system features in Chicago (including facial recognition, automatic tracking, and zooming), storage and disclosure of images, transparency, and public input. Among the proposals advanced by the ACLU of Illinois are these: 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 recording of activity in private areas (such as residences and private businesses); bar the dissemination of images captured by the cameras except under specific circumstances; and requiring public notice and the opportunity for public input before a camera is installed in the City of Chicago. The report, funded in part by a grant from the Open Society Institute of New York City, was transmitted to all the candidates for Mayor of Chicago in the February 2011 election, as well as current alderman and aldermanic candidates.

The report, the first independent study of the system, notes that in addition to the vast number of cameras and close integration, Chicago's cameras have three powerful and potentially invasive technologies:

  • The cameras have a "zoom" capacity, allowing operators to see small objects and features at great distances and at many times their normal size;
  • The cameras have "facial recognition" capacity, enabling a computer to automatically search for a particular person's face; and,
  • The cameras have an "automatic tracking" capacity, by which a computer can automatically track a person or vehicle moving along a public way, jumping from one camera to the next.

The ACLU report urges a moratorium on the deployment of new cameras to provide time for the City to conduct a "comprehensive review of the past, present, and future of Chicago's surveillance camera system." The report recommends that the review "define the City's objectives, consider all the costs, and weigh al the evidence about effectiveness," and perhaps most importantly, "consider whether to reduce the number of cameras in the City's system."

City officials have spoken bluntly about their vision of expanding the system, including remarks by Mayor Richard Daley that he wants a "camera on every corner of the City" over the next few years. Other cities (including Denver, New York City, Pittsburgh, Salt Lake City, San Francisco and Washington, DC) have adopted explicit written policies to protect privacy. Additionally, a blue ribbon commission that included former FBI Director William Sessions proposed a set of model regulations that contain critical privacy safeguards.

The report stresses that part of the City's considerations should include the cost of cameras and their effectiveness compared to the value of a police officer at a time when the City's police force is down more than 1,000 officers. The ACLU notes that the most recent comprehensive studies on surveillance cameras raise important questions about their effectiveness. A 2009 study of surveillance cameras in San Francisco, conducted by the University of California at Berkley, found that cameras had no "statistically significant impact on violent crime" or "drug crime." A year earlier, a review by the University of Southern California of all domestic studies on surveillance cameras in the United States found that no statistically significant impact on crime could be found as a result of the presence of surveillance cameras.