Chicago Goes High-Tech with Cameras, Biochemical Sensors

$53 million to be spent on fiber-optic network that will connect cameras and biochemical sensors to watch for signs of terrorism


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.

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