Chicago Goes High-Tech with Cameras, Biochemical Sensors

Using $53 million from a cable company settlement, Chicago will create a fiber-optic grid almost 1,000 miles long with cameras and biochemical sensors to watch for signs of terrorism, crime and traffic tie-ups, city officials announced Thursday.

The new system, dubbed the Homeland Security Grid, will include "a significant increase in the quantity" of surveillance cameras pointed at public spaces across the city, said Ron Huberman, executive director of the Office of Emergency Management and Communications.

Last September, Mayor Richard Daley said the city would add 250 cameras to more than 2,000 already in use, making it the largest video surveillance system of its kind in the world.

The new effort, to be completed in 18 months, will add even more cameras, made possible by cable operator RCN's providing the city with 388 miles of fiber-optic cable, Huberman said.

RCN's cable will be linked to more than 600 miles owned by the city and sister agencies to create "one seamless grid" that will be monitored at the city's 911 center. It also will link police, fire, school and other government communication systems.

Many of the new cameras will be along the lakefront and Lake Shore Drive, monitoring parks, water filtration plants and popular public venues like Navy Pier. Thirty-two miles of lakefront from Evanston to Chicago's southern edge will be wired into the new system.

Some critics have said the city's use of surveillance cameras is eerily similar to tactics employed by governments that control every aspect of people's lives in George Orwell's "1984."

"We question whether cameras provide the kind of security boost they credit to them," said Ed Yohnka, Chicago spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union. He called for a dialogue on "whether the public thinks these cameras are appropriate."

He cited a 2003 ACLU report that concluded a "dark potential" lurks in proliferating monitoring systems. "If we do not take steps to control and regulate surveillance to bring it into conformity with our values, we will find ourselves being tracked, analyzed, profiled and flagged in our daily lives to a degree we can scarcely imagine today," the report stated.

Huberman said the city is keenly aware of the Orwellian angst.

"The city is always concerned about not having the perception that the city is acting as Big Brother," he said. "These cameras always are strictly pointed only in the public way. So we're looking at the streets, alleys, sidewalks and open park space.

"The individuals who view these cameras have all gone through 1st and 4th Amendment training," he added. "Our protocols are very strict. We watch this very, very carefully to ensure, going forward, that we are focusing these cameras purely on what we need them for, which is traffic and public safety."

He also said the city has seen a "really dramatic improvement and statistical reductions in crime in areas where these cameras have been deployed." Some critics, however, have argued that the presence of cameras just pushes crime to new areas.

Use of surveillance cameras to detect crime, terrorism and traffic jams is a growing trend worldwide, with an extensive system in London. Cook County is using a $34 million federal homeland security grant for a new system that in part gives public safety officials greater video surveillance abilities.

Biological, chemical and radiological sensors designed to warn the city of a terrorist attack before it's visible or results in illness also will be installed, Huberman added. Some already exist, but the additions and tie-in to an "incredibly powerful grid" will greatly improve the city's capabilities, he said.

Huberman declined to identify the type of sensors or the numbers of new cameras and sensors that will be installed. "We never want a would-be terrorist or would-be criminal to be able to figure out how to reverse-engineer, or figure out our system, and then try to defeat it," he said.

In addition to early detection of terrorist attacks, the system will be used to look for criminal activity, help the city manage disasters and even allow traffic monitors to change street-light timing to reduce traffic backups, Huberman said.

"It provides a virtual shield for the city of Chicago," Huberman said.

Announcement of the Homeland Security Grid came a day after Daley proposed to the City Council a $53 million settlement with RCN, which failed to live up to its city franchise agreement by not expanding its services. RCN emerged from bankruptcy in December.

To satisfy the settlement, RCN will provide to the city 388 miles of underground fiber-optic cables for 75 years, mostly along the city's lakefront, said Norma Reyes, commissioner of consumer services. That cable is valued at $31 million, she said.

RCN, which has pledged to maintain that cable for the agreement's duration, is expected to spend $17.5 million to maintain and upgrade that cable over the next five years, Reyes said. RCN also will make a $4.5 million payment to the city's general fund and, beyond the settlement amount, a $2 million payment to Chicago Access Network Television.

The new cable will augment about 600 miles owned by the city and sister agencies. The city cable all will be linked before the new cable is connected, Huberman said.

To add new cameras and link the entire system over the next 18 months, the city will spend about $5 million it obtained through federal homeland security grants, Huberman said.

"One of the areas that the RCN fiber agreement has given us is great penetration along the Chicago lakefront," he said. "This is a very significant increase of cameras along the Chicago lakefront and along Lake Shore Drive."

If the city had installed the system on its own, it would have spent $100 million, Huberman said.