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Lopez proposes dramatic expansion of Chicago’s camera surveillance network

His own Ring doorbell camera captured video of two offenders throwing three bricks through his front window. Now Ald. Ray Lopez wants that same technology to provide “thousands of new eyes” for Chicago Police officers.

Video doorbells could do a lot in the city’s fight against crime, Chicago Ald. Ray Lopez said. His own doorbell video captured a brick-throwing incident.
Video doorbells could do a lot in the city’s fight against crime, Chicago Ald. Ray Lopez said. His own doorbell video captured a brick-throwing incident. But the ACLU isn’t happy about the potential invasion of privacy.
Jessica Hill/Associated Press

Two months ago, the Ring doorbell camera attached to the Brighton Park home of Ald. Ray Lopez (15th) captured video of two offenders brazenly walking up the front steps and throwing three bricks through the alderman’s window.

Now, Lopez wants to use that same doorbell camera technology to provide what he calls “thousands of new eyes” for Chicago Police officers waging a never-ending battle against gang violence.

At Wednesday’s City Council meeting, Lopez introduced an “order” calling for CPD to enter into a memorandum of understanding with Ring, ADT, Vivint and other doorbell security camera operators whose systems are compatible with cameras already linked to the city’s 911 emergency center.

If a crime occurs on a Chicago block and it’s not already captured by crime-fighting POD cameras, homeowners on that block would get a text message seeking their permission to use video from their doorbell cameras. If the answer is “no” that’s as far as it would go. If the answer is “yes,” police could have the video evidence they need to catch the offenders, Lopez said.

“The cameras that we had in our home were able to identify the [brick-throwing] individuals and their path. We have nearly two dozen other personal home security device cameras [on the block] that helped show us the path that they took leaving and coming back an hour later to set fire to my neighbor’s garage. We’ve even seen Ring cameras being used to catch individuals who are fly dumping in communities,” Lopez said.

“This is a real benefit that costs us nothing, but helps widen our police net beyond the scope of the $20,000 POD cameras that are only on the corners. … Ring itself has over 500 [memoranda of understanding] throughout the country where they are coordinating with the police. We don’t have that kind of agreement in the city of Chicago. It’s an important tool we are leaving in the tool box.”

Lopez sloughed off privacy concerns tied to a dramatic expansion of the city’s Big Brother network of surveillance cameras.

“This is not just an open-ended viewing party by OEMC or CPD. We have to get real-time permission from the owners to access their cameras. … If the answer is `no,’ it’s over,” he said.

ACLU spokesman Ed Yohnka was not appeased.

Chicago already has “the largest, most expansive surveillance system in the country,” he argued.

“We’ve heard repeatedly that, if we just expand it a little more, it will solve all of the problems of criminal activity,” Yohnka said Thursday.

“Now that we have cameras on streets and corners, the idea is that we have to get cameras from peoples’ stoops and front porches. … At some point, we just have to get away from this idea that surveillance or toys are gonna be the answer to the problem of crime in Chicago.”

Text-message permission doesn’t solve privacy issues, since many doorbell cameras are “pointed in a way that, on narrow neighborhood streets, they look directly across the street to their neighbor’s home or property,” Yohnka said.

“Somebody could be just sitting out with friends or sitting out with a romantic partner on their stoop and that information is captured. Surveillance … in an urban area like Chicago is not gonna be limited to just the homeowner’s property. Which raises the fundamental issues about, is giving permission simply enough — because it extends beyond that one person,” he said.

Four years ago, Lopez proposed offering homeowners a $200 rebate to purchase exterior cameras linked to the city’s vast video surveillance network to combat gang violence that, more recently, made him a three-time victim — twice at his ward office, in addition to that incident at his home.

The doorbell camera idea is an even cheaper alternative, he said. Prices on the Abt website range from $99 to $349.

In 2008, the City Council agreed to dramatically expand Chicago’s Big Brother reach — with surveillance cameras on street sweepers and a revolutionary hookup that adds private-sector cameras to the city’s vast video network.

It allowed businesses, high-rises and even private homes with outside surveillance cameras to share their video with the city’s 911 center to create panoramic views of disaster scenes.

At the time, OEMC was authorized to reach out to businesses, sign agreements and create a public-private Internet hookup to transmit “fully-encrypted video” that, officials said, could not be compromised by computer hackers.

Two years ago, then-OEMC Director Alicia Tate-Nadeau declared Chicago’s 29,000 public and private surveillance cameras the largest “federated” system in the nation.