Between traffic-light cameras, blue-light cameras that scan neighborhoods for violent crime, cameras on board city trains and buses -- not to mention private security cameras -- there are few places you can go in Chicago without being monitored.
In the metropolis known as the City of Big Shoulders, it seems Big Brother really is watching. At last count, there were an estimated 24,000 cameras in place.
And the proliferation of cameras is raising new privacy concerns.
"It’s really a mission creep in terms of what those cameras were designed to do,” said Ed Yohnko, with the American Civil Liberties Union.
The basic rule with cameras is that people are free to record anything that happens in public because there is no expectation of privacy. But it gets more complicated, particularly with traffic cameras. Three-hundred-and-forty-eight cameras were at one point installed around the city, sold to the public on the claim that their purpose was to catch people speeding and running red lights.
Now, two-thirds of those cameras are being upgraded with 360-degree swivels so they can rotate and monitor everything within sight of the intersection.
That prompted the ACLU to raise the red flag.
“They were implemented and sold to the public on the basis of the fact that they were going to be used for traffic safety,” Yohnko said. “But what this new [technology] permits is for these cameras to now be integrated into the massive surveillance system the city of Chicago already has. So, the cameras can be switched from being traffic safety devices to being a broader surveillance system."
Mayor Rahm Emanuel knows how quickly the cameras can cause a public problem for a politician. His motorcade was caught speeding and running red lights 17 times by the cameras.
"Let me say this -- as soon as I saw that or heard about it … I said, look, follow the law, nobody's above the law, slow down, period, non-stop," Emanuel said, before abruptly ending questioning at a recent press conference.
City leaders are looking to the cameras as they try to get a handle on gang and other violence plaguing Chicago.
Twice now since the weather warmed up, shootings in the troubled neighborhoods of Chicago have outpaced one an hour.
However, the ACLU says security cameras in troubled neighborhoods have not decreased the number of violent crimes -- just moved them out of sight of the cameras.
Traffic cameras have not brought down the number of traffic accidents, either, according to Roy Lucke, transportation programs director at Northwestern University. However, the severity of injuries has decreased. This is, he says, because people are aware of the cameras and are less likely to speed through a red light.
The catastrophic T-bone car wreck has been replaced by the fender bender.
"So, if you cut down on the number of violators there's still some good. Obviously, we're reducing the serious injury and possibly even fatal crashes with those cameras," Lucke said.
With plenty of need and some results to show for the effort, the ACLU says what is missing is a set of guidelines establishing boundaries: for instance, rules saying a politician may not use the cameras to track an opponent or an employee may not keep tabs on his ex-spouse.
Further, the ACLU wants the guidelines made public.