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City Surveillance Cameras Have A Major Security Problem, Watchdog Says

By Heather Cherone | December 13, 2016 11:07am
 Officials could not assure investigators that the 2,7000 cameras had been used appropriately.
Officials could not assure investigators that the 2,7000 cameras had been used appropriately.
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DNAinfo/Devlin Brown

CITY HALL — The city's network of 2,700 surveillance cameras may have been accessed by unauthorized personnel and used inappropriately, according to an audit released Tuesday by Inspector General Joseph Ferguson.

The audit examined the Office of Emergency Management and Communications, which is charged with managing about 2,700 of Chicago's public safety cameras, as well as a wider network that includes more than 27,000 cameras.

City officials could not provide investigators with "reasonable assurance that only approved personnel had accessed its public safety camera system and used it appropriately," according to the audit.

The biggest issue stemmed from the use of group logins at shared computer terminals at Chicago Police Department stations to access the cameras in the wider network, and "to make directional and focus changes" to the city's public safety cameras marked by a blue light.

The larger network includes cameras on CTA trains, buses, public transit stations, CHA facilities and ones operated by other public agencies, officials said.

"The integrity of the system requires that OEMC follow through on its commitment to ensure that only those qualified to use the system are accessing it and that those individuals use it appropriately," according to the audit.

The use of shared login credentials made it impossible to "trace camera access and use to a specific person," a fact that "impeded" a 2012 investigation by the inspector general into an allegation that an individual manipulated a public safety camera to avoid recording the execution of an arrest, according to the audit.

That incident was the subject of an investigation in 2011 by WBEZ.

"The risk of such an impediment to both administrative and criminal investigations of wrongdoing persists for all terminals with group logins," according to the audit.

Edwin C. Yohnka, of the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, said the audit "makes clear that the public’s privacy has been at risk for the many years that this system has been in operation."

We do not know if individuals within OEMC or CPD have used the cameras to invade individual’s privacy or hide police misconduct," Yohnka said. "Until the City gets control of this problem, there should be a moratorium on new cameras."

Most users, including police officers, are allowed to view live feeds, move the camera and view archived footage, according to the audit.

Only a few users have the ability to download archived footage and to change each camera's system settings.

Late last year, officials began replacing group logins with unique user names and passwords for all users except personnel in the district stations, according to the audit.

Beginning in the spring, all city officials will access the the camera system "using personal login credentials."

In addition, the audit found that cameras were operating below the city's informal expectation that at least 95 percent of public safety cameras be fully functional at any given time. The audit recommends city officials improve their oversight of Motorola, which maintains the cameras, through "better documentation."

Since 2006, the city has spent about $140 million on the camera program. The first cameras were installed in 2003 in high-crime areas of the city.

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