02/08/2011 09:57 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

ACLU: Chicago Cameras Are Excessive, Invasive

The American Civil Liberties Union released a scathing report Tuesday that calls on the city of Chicago to halt the expansion of its massive surveillance camera network.

Citing privacy issues, First Amendment concerns and a lack of regulation, the ACLU says Chicagoans are among the most-watched citizens in the country.

"Chicago's camera network invades the freedom to be anonymous in public places, a key aspect of the fundamental American right to be left alone," the report states. "Each of us then will wonder whether the government is watching and recording us when we walk into a psychiatrist's office, a reproductive health care center, a political meeting, a theater performance, or a book store."

In less than a decade and with little opposition, the city has linked thousands of cameras - on street poles and skyscrapers, aboard buses and in train tunnels - in a network covering most of the city. Officials can watch video live at a sprawling emergency command center, police stations and even some squad cars. The ACLU report says that the Chicago Police Department has 1,260 surveillance cameras across Chicago, and has access to thousands more.

"I don't think there is another city in the U.S. that has as an extensive and integrated camera network as Chicago has," Michael Chertoff, the former Homeland Security secretary said last year.

Chicago Police Superintendent Jody Weis supports the cameras, and said they help deter crime and are cost effective for a police department working with less officers than usual. They also help officers collect solid evidence to bring to court.

"Rather than having the guys do surveillance on the street, they are sitting back and watching it on the cameras," Weis told Chicago Magazine in 2009. "They've got the cars identified, they know who to go after, and they can arrest the people."

The ACLU report says that the city should conduct a study on the effectiveness of the cameras, and that Chicago should "change course, before we awake to find that we cannot walk into a bookstore or a doctor's office free from the government's watchful eye."

"Our focus right now is to persuade policymakers at the city level to implement a moratorium on new cameras, to do a study and to put in place these regulations," Adam Schwartz, co-legal counsel for the ACLU, told the Chicago Tribune. The ACLU also recommends that the city focus on hiring more officers, not buying more cameras.

Ald. Carrie Austin (34th) told the Chicago Sun-Times she that she is not opposed to a moratorium on new surveillance cameras in her South Side ward, saying that crime has not decreased the way she hoped it would when the cameras were installed. But, she also said many community members have been asking for more cameras.

"Anyone who's had a tour of the 911 center would agree that surveillance cameras are one of the most effective tools in law enforcement today and it seems like they're very popular with the local residents," Ald. Ed Burke, a former Chicago Police officer, told the Sun-Times.

Chicago police spokeswoman Lt. Maureen Biggane said she had not seen the ACLU report.

"The Chicago Police Department is committed to safeguarding the civil liberties of city residents and visitors alike," she said in a statement. "Public safety is a responsibility of paramount importance and we are fully committed to protecting the public from crime, and upholding the constitutional rights of all."