Privacy SOS

Above: a law enforcement command and control center in Chicago where police have access to visual data from the over 10,000 cameras in the city

High Tech Cameras

As the ACLU of Illinois observes in their report on surveillance cameras in Chicago, there are three developments in camera technology that pose particularly serious civil liberties problems. Those three developments are pan-tilt-zoom (PTZ), facial recognition, and automatic tracking technologies.


Most of the surveillance cameras that DHS authorizes state and local governments to buy with federal funds have pan-tilt-zoom (PTZ) capabilities. This allows for the camera operator (like the man in the screenshot above) to move the camera view from left to right (pan), up or down (tilt) and to make the image larger or smaller (zoom). Many surveillance cameras now have the ability to read the text of a book from 500 feet away. For example, this camera, the CrimeEye125, authorized by DHS for sale to state and local governments as well as federal agencies, boasts that it is capable of a 35X optical zoom as well as capturing images in the dark. For just under $20,000, agencies can buy one of these units. Evidence suggests Chicago has bought thousands of similar camera systems at a cost of tens of millions of dollars. Some similar PTZ systems also incorporate thermal imaging and extreme weather capabilities, like this one. Some of these cameras are portable and can be set up and taken down very quickly. Some of these cameras are extremely costly, like this one: it'll put you out nearly $100,000!

Facial Recognition

Chicago's camera system uses integrated facial recognition software. The technology allows law enforcement to identify the people they are watching on camera, if the targets are in a biometrics database. The technology allowing for this kind of integration is expanding rapidly, with help from researchers in US and foreign academic institutions. 

Automated Tracking

Perhaps the scariest of all of these technological developments is the capability for automated tracking of people from camera to camera. This means that if you are walking down Street X, the cameras up and down that street can automatically track you from one camera to the next as you move down the street, or through the city. The ACLU of Illinois describes how this technology is used in conjunction with “video analytics” software in Chicago:

This automatic tracking function is part of the City’s larger system of “video analytics,” in which computers automatically search for images of interest to City officials, such as a vehicle bearing a particular license plate or having a particular color, or an unattended package. The power of automatic tracking, combined with the great density of cameras in downtown Chicago, is demonstrated by the CPD’s investigation of the 2009 gunshot death of the former school board president under a downtown bridge. The CPD watched his drive through the downtown area, with his vehicle jumping from one camera to the next. Doing so, the CPD determined that he was alone in his final moments, and thus that his death was a suicide. Anyone’s movements could be automatically tracked in the same way.
A number of companies are selling video analytics software to the federal government and to state and local agencies. Among them are Cernium, which sells a product called “Perceptrak;” Object Video; and PureActiv Systems, Inc., among many more.
In addition to these many kinds of add-ons to enhance the ability to surveil and identify people via surveillance cameras, the cameras themselves keep getting smaller and easier to disguise. The military's far-out research and development arm, DARPA, is asking techies to come up with a scary, futuristic camera tracking program that blows current technology out of the water.
But plenty of invasive camera technologies already exist. Take a look at the links below to see the kinds of secretive surveillance cameras DHS has authorized state and local governments buy. Who's keeping an eye on the watchers?

The RKB website also lists a number of products the details of which are kept secret from the public. While the product is listed in search results, details are kept behind a password protected wall. Here's an example of that kind of technology. This is a screenshot from the site:

Click here for more information on surveillance cameras.

Camera Networks and Analytics Software

The “FirstView & Virtual Perimeter” projects are surveillance camera networking systems that allow people to monitor and control hundreds of cameras at a time. The photo to the right shows an operator viewing cameras at a Boston subway station. Cost for the basic system: $8995

In addition to these networking systems, there exists futuristic video analytics software that “reads” video by itself, without the aid of human monitors. “Alsight 2.1” is one of those systems; it uses what it calls “behavioral analytics” to autonomously monitor areas for unusual activities. According to the RKB website:

Taking visual input from either a live camera or recorded video, AISight autonomously learns what activities and behaviors normally occur in an environment or scene. When AISight observes anomalous behavior, the software generates an alert to notify appropriate security personnel in real time. The system can be managed and monitored through a user-friendly desktop and browser-based application, or can easily integrate into existing video management or command and control systems. AISight installation is as simple as installing the software and linking the camera feeds. 

There are also a number of different kinds of video analytics systems available to law enforcement. Read more about those systems here and here, and check out this video to see how analytics works:

Please note that by playing this clip You Tube and Google will place a long-term cookie on your computer. Please see You Tube's privacy statement on their website and Google's privacy statement on theirs to learn more. To view the ACLU's privacy statement, click here.

© 2023 ACLU of Massachusetts.