Students keep eyes on Loop surveillance

Website maps out some 400 cameras in Chicago's Loop

A group of students at the School of the Art Institute may have their work cut out for them if a recent proposal by 31st Ward Alderman Ray Suarez passes in City Hall later this year. In the spring semester of 2004, 12 students began documenting security cameras in the Loop that were recording on public property. The extensive mapping effort showed nearly 300 cameras that year. By 2005, it increased to 400, and now that number could grow again. In January public safety officials endorsed a proposal brought forward by Suarez requiring all businesses open more than 12 hours a day to install surveillance systems. Suarez said that by installing cameras at the entrance and in front of cash registers of businesses, customers would have a better sense of security. He also said businesses are not doing their part when it comes to monitoring parking lots they own.

"I've had people come to me and say they are uncomfortable at some establishments," Suarez said. "So it's a safety aspect."

Out of the hundreds of cameras within the Loop, bordered by Wacker Drive, Michigan Avenue, Congress Parkway and Lake Street, more than half are privately installed by businesses and companies. Government institutions, the city of Chicago and the Police Department also have cameras visible by the public eye.

The mapping was a collaborative effort by the students in the Art of Surveillance class at the School of the Art Institute, said Tiffany Holmes, professor of the class. Students also touched on the history of closed circuit television and the ways artists deal with surveillance in society. The idea for the database came after a visit by Bill Brown, co-founder of the Surveillance Camera Players, a New York-based group opposed to the use of video surveillance. Brown lead Holmes and students on a short walking tour along Lake Street and Wabash Avenue.

"He pointed out all of the cameras monitoring public activity," Holmes said. "That was the inspiration to go back and map out the entire Loop" [...]

So the group created the website, posting the maps with each camera location with additional information on the project and the history of surveillance in the United States.

"We are just tying to raise awareness of the number of cameras," Mason said. "We all know they're there but not to what extent." Mason said that following completion of the class, other students have stepped forward and continued with the research and updated the database as new cameras are installed. And within a few years Homes would like to have the Open Loop website more interactive by allowing users to update and define new cameras on their own [...]

(Written by Alan Baker and published in the 20 February 2006 issue of The Columbia Chronicle.)

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