Chicago's Video Surveillance Gets Smarter

Chicago has 560 surveillance cameras around the city and is planning to install 100 more. i i

hide captionChicago has 560 surveillance cameras around the city and is planning to install 100 more.

David Schaper, NPR
Chicago has 560 surveillance cameras around the city and is planning to install 100 more.

Chicago has 560 surveillance cameras around the city and is planning to install 100 more.

David Schaper, NPR
This is a shot of a computer screen showing information from "smart surveillance" cameras i i

hide captionThis is a shot of a computer screen showing information from "smart surveillance" cameras focused at the entrance to a parking lot.

This is a shot of a computer screen showing information from "smart surveillance" cameras

An off-limits area is shown at the top left (red); an alert would sound when a vehicle enters it. Other elements include a live feed from the camera at the entrance (lower left), live feeds from other cameras (top right) and selected images of all red cars seen entering or leaving the lot over a period of time (bottom right).

Chicago already has an elaborate network of surveillance cameras to detect crime — 560 cameras with plans to install 100 more.

Now, the city is teaming with IBM to launch what is being billed as the most advanced video security network in the United States: a system that could be programmed to recognize and warn authorities of suspicious behavior, such as a backpack left in a park or the same truck circling a high-rise several times.

IBM's Roger Rehayem says smart cameras using analytic software can send out alerts for vehicles of certain colors, models and makes. And if a camera is positioned right, it can pick out license plates or even recognize faces.

One of the limits of the technology is that the system is only as good as the sharpness and clarity of the pictures, Rehayem says. And as far as the technology has come in recent years, the picture quality still can be dicey.

The American Civil Liberties Union says it doesn't oppose the use of surveillance cameras in public places, per se. But a spokesman says he does worry about how smart cameras are used — so as not to lead to racial profiling or unwarranted stops and searches.

Jonathan Schachter, public policy lecturer at Northwestern University, says there's little evidence thus far showing that security cameras really prevent crime or terrorist acts.

But he says that doesn't mean police departments shouldn't use the technology if they can.

Chicago officials say they're not completely sold yet on the smart surveillance technology. They say visual and audio advancements, such as gunshot recognition, just haven't been perfected enough yet to justify the cost of installing smart surveillance cameras citywide.

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