On the Privacy Concerns of Chicago’s 911-CCTV Surveillance Infrastructure

The city of Chicago has started to integrate its network of CCTV surveillance cameras to its 911 call center, creating a robust infrastructure to allow dispatchers to visually observe, in real time, the location of many 911 calls throughout the city. According to the city’s press release:

When a 911 call is received, the CAD system scans the OVS network to find any safety camera within 150 feet of the address of the call.

Within seconds, real time video of the location appears on the call taker’s screen.

This story in the NY Times notes the typical privacy concerns with this kind of public surveillance infrastructure:

[O]pponents of Mr. Daley’s use of public surveillance cameras described the new system as a potential Big Brother intrusion on privacy rights.

“If a 911 caller reports that someone left a backpack on the sidewalk, will the camera image of someone who appears to be of Arab or South Asian descent make police decide that person is suspicious?” asked Ed Yohnka of the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois.

“There seems to be this incredibly voracious appetite on the part of the city to link up cameras to the 911 system,” Mr. Yohnka said. “But there are just no longitudinal statistics that prove that surveillance cameras reduce crime. They just displace crime.”

Nothing too surprising in the discourse surrounding this system, except for this quote in the Times article:

Some experts, including Albert Alschuler, a law professor at Northwestern University, say the surveillance cameras and updated 911 system do not violate privacy rights because the cameras are installed in public locations.

Huh? I’m not familiar with Prof. Alschuler’s work, or what kind of “expert” he is, but I’m quite surprised that he would take such a binary approach to privacy, and not recognize that a right to privacy in public often exists (within social and contextual norms, if not the law).

Wyatt Ditzler, one of our PhD students, provides further comments on this story, noting a concern over who has access to the system and the retention policies of the video captured. Ditzler also provides a “slight joke,” suggesting that “Perhaps video surveillance, open to the public, covering all governmental offices is in order.” Many have actually called for this form mutual surveillance and full disclosure to everyone, such as in Brin’s Transparent Society. The problem with this vision of society, as Bruce Schneier has pointed out, is that it fails to account for dissimilarities in power relations. Law enforcement can do a lot more to affect my life if they know all my secrets, than I can do to affect theirs.

1 comment

  1. There is always going to be a debate over privacy concerns. On one hand is it right that we shoudl all be watched 24/7 but on the other hand if you are the one who has just been robbed and beaten you want that person off the street in double quick time. It seems we either sort out society or comprimise on our basic right to privacy. I am sure the first option is a better one but while this is being sorted I’d like to walk around safely thanks…

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