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Chicago's High-Tech Surveillance Experiment Brings Privacy Fears

A sophisticated surveillance system in downtown Chicago is supposed to improve life in the city, but privacy advocates have deep concerns.
Photo by Monika Thorpe

To scientists, corporate executives, and government officials in Chicago, installing a new high-tech surveillance system downtown promises to create utopia — a safer, cleaner, and more efficiently run city.

To privacy advocates, the sensors proposed for the Loop and hundreds of other spots around the Windy City are a reminder that Big Data is often the precursor to Big Brother.

“There’s a research hubris,” Lee Tien, a senior attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told VICE News. “There is something callous about not letting people decide if they want to be the subject of this experiment.”


Called the “Array of Things,” the plan hatched by the Urban Center for Computation and Data — a joint initiative between the University of Chicago and Argonne National Laboratory — would place sensors at eight intersections along Michigan Avenue next month. Cisco Systems, Intel, Motorola Solutions, Schneider Electric, Qualcomm, and Zebra Technologies donated money and technical expertise to launch the project.

The sensors would track air quality, noise pollution, the weather, and also count people passing through the area by tallying signals from their wireless mobile devices.

'Our intention is to understand cities better.'

The researchers aren’t exactly sure what they’ll do with the data their sensors collect. They first want to see what the experiment might yield, reports said. But they believe the information, gathered with city permission, would help officials better manage air quality, traffic, and other issues.

"Our intention is to understand cities better," said Charlie Catlett, a computer scientist and the Urban Center’s director, speaking to the Chicago Tribune. "Part of the goal is to make these things essentially a public utility."

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The sensors won’t record private information, claimed Catlett. They will only count wireless device signals in the area they are surveilling, not archive the digital thumbprints of those devices, he said. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel, who touts Chicago’s tech-friendly business climate but has largely been mum about the surveillance system, is now drafting policy to protect the confidentially of folks tracked by the sensors, the Tribune reported.


Joseph Lorenzo Hall, chief technologist at the Center for Democracy and Technology, wasn’t convinced. “It’s hard for me to believe these aren’t recording anything,” he told VICE News. “The only way you get useful data from anything in life is keeping records of things.”

'It’s hard for me to believe these aren’t recording anything.'

Even if the Array of Things doesn’t keep a record of identities, it will always have the raw data that someone could use in order to track specific behaviors that might allow police, hackers, or others to target individuals, added Tien. He used the analogy of a photographer taking pictures of a crowd. The snapper might not know the name of everyone in the photos. But he’s still collected traces of their whereabouts.

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“There is a lot of richness in the data that reveals who people are even if you strip away all of the identifiers,” Tien said.

Hall admitted, however, that the system shows the potential of technology to assess the workings of a big city to glean lessons for improving citizens’ quality of life. The question is whether enough people understand that the system’s benefits probably might come with a price, he said.

“There is this tension between collecting facts about our environment and building new services and theoretical models for research and using data that doesn’t compromise privacy,” said Hall.

Photo via Flickr