City Council must act on surveillance camera system

In 2011, while Rahm Emanuel was first running for mayor, the American Civil Liberties Union released a report detailing privacy concerns with Chicago’s extensive network of public safety surveillance cameras.  In response, candidate Emanuel promised “more transparency and information about those cameras.”

It was a promise he never fulfilled.

That much is clear from a new audit of the system by the Chicago Office of Inspector General. The audit found that the Office of Emergency Management and Communications, which runs the system, had failed to comply with the city’s Information Security and Technology Policies. So OEMC had no idea whether personnel who were accessing the camera system were authorized to do so, or were using it in an appropriate manner, according to the IG.

In particular, police officers in district stations can access any camera in the network using a group login – a practice prohibited by the city’s information security policy. OEMC was, obviously, unable to produce a list of personnel who had accessed the network.

This lack of transparency was clear just a year after Emanuel was elected, when the IG was unable to complete an investigation into a report that a Chicago Police Department camera had been manipulated to avoid recording a possible incident of police brutality and a possible false arrest.  OEMC and CPD couldn’t identify who at a police station or the city’s 911 center had remotely shifted the camera away from the incident.  (The city settled the false arrest claim for $7,500.)

A year later, Emanuel was bragging that “we have continued to put cameras throughout the city.”  Indeed, the IG report reveals that the system ­– which includes cameras operated by CPD, Chicago Transit Authority, Chicago Public Schools, Chicago Park District and private businesses – has nearly tripled in size under Emanuel, now encompassing 27,000 cameras, with no transparency whatsoever.

As part of that expansion, in the ramp-up to the 2012 NATO Summit, Emanuel passed an ordinance that gave the police superintendent permanent authority “to enter into agreements with public or private entities concerning placement, installation, maintenance or use of video, audio, telecommunications or other similar equipment,” with no outside oversight.

OEMC says that in response to preliminary findings of the IG audit, it has required group logins to be replaced by individual usernames and passwords – except at police stations, where all users are now asked to sign in on a logbook.

Individual access protocols will be required of CPD by next spring, according to OEMC’s response to the IG report.

However, it doesn’t sound like police are completely on board. In a curious, apparently off-message response to a Chicago Tribune story on the audit, however, a CPD spokesperson said the department was weighing the need for oversight against the need for officer access.

For its part, the ACLU is renewing its 2011 call for a moratorium on the expansion of the spycam network, Ed Yohnka of ACLU Illinois told me.  “We should take time to evaluate the system for effectiveness and privacy issues,” he said.

The ACLU report cited numerous studies that show that surveillance cameras have no impact on violent or petty crime, and a 2013 ACLU review found cameras were involved in less than 1 percent of CPD arrests, and were of virtually no value for prosecutors. The report also describes incidents in other cities where officers used spycams for voyeuristic purposes.  It suggested that the city should consider reducing the number of cameras.

And the City Council needs to step in, Yohnka said.  In 2011, the group suggested developing an ordinance based on standards developed by former FBI Director William Sessions and implemented in other cities.  Those standards would require reasonable suspicion of criminal activity or a threat to public safety before utilizing powerful and potentially invasive tools in the city’s spycam network, including zoom capacity, facial recognition, and automatic tracking.

There should also be limits on retaining and disseminating images, public notice of all cameras in the system, and public hearings whenever additional cameras are added, according to the standards proposed in the ACLU report.

The City Council should also require annual, publicly disclosed audits of the system to evaluate its effectiveness at reducing crime, its impact on privacy concerns, and any misuse of the cameras and corrective action taken, Yohnka said.

That would indeed be “more transparency and information,” just like the mayor once promised.

Emanuel now says the IG report makes “valid points,” the city “[has] made changes, and we’re going to make more changes,” and the cameras have been “extremely helpful.”

Unless the City Council acts to ensure more openness, we’ll just have to take his word for it.