Polygon's investigation of the surveillance technology being used by the real city of Chicago shows a truth uncomfortably close to the fiction.
On Nov. 15, 2009, Michael Scott's family reported him missing. The next day, a Monday, Chicago Police found him floating in the river not far from the city center. He died of a gunshot wound to the head delivered at extremely close range. Police forensics, in cooperation with the Cook County medical examiner, later ruled that his death was a suicide.
The incident initially drew local, and later national, media attention. Scott wasn't just anyone. He was the president of the Chicago Board of Education, the third-largest public school district in the nation.
He was also under investigation for suspicious real estate deals related to the city's unsuccessful 2016 Summer Olympics bid. His lifeless body laid to rest many inconvenient questions that had begun to circulate at City Hall, while simultaneously raising others.
Superintendent Jody Weis, then the head of the Chicago Police Department, went to great lengths to describe how certain he was that Scott's death was a suicide. His press conference, delivered less than a month after the body was found, leveraged important evidence from Chicago's sophisticated city-wide video surveillance system. Weis stated that the system had sifted through hundreds of terabytes of video footage to find Scott's black Cadillac, that it was then able to track his car through the Chicago Loop for more than 45 minutes to the place where he died. He stated that the system, built by IBM, showed him irrefutable evidence that Scott was alone when he died.
It was the first time a new technology, called video analytics, had been used to gather evidence and actually solve a crime in Chicago.
One year earlier, in 2008, Ubisoft's Montreal studio had begun work on Nexus, the project that would later become known as Watch Dogs. The video evidence used in the investigation of Scott's death was important to that team as well, because it proved that the fiction behind its video game, set in a near-future Chicago, was already true.
Watch Dogs is set in a fictional Chicago where most city functions are controlled by a central operating system, called the ctOS. Players can break into that operating system and take control of the infrastructure of the city itself. They can hack into the network and change traffic lights from red to green, open secure doors with the swipe of a finger on their in-game phone, even raise and lower the iconic bridges that span a simulated Chicago River — a river strikingly similar to the real Chicago River where Scott's body was found in 2009.
Those who play Watch Dogs when it is released sometime in 2014 will also take control of the video surveillance cameras scattered around Ubisoft's fake Chicago. They will use them to their advantage, just like Superintendent Weis did to investigate Scott's very real death four years ago.
Dominic Guay, senior producer on Watch Dogs, puts it another way.
"We like to say that in Watch Dogs we're lifting the veil on the reality that surrounds us. So we're not judging it. We're not saying it's good or bad. That's up to the player to define [for] himself what he thinks of it."
For the past two months Polygon has been working to lift the veil on surveillance in the real Chicago. We've discovered that it is the most watched city in the United States, and perhaps the world.
Michael Chertoff, former secretary of homeland security, told the Associated Press in 2010, "I don't think there is another city in the U.S. that has as an extensive and integrated camera network as Chicago has."
He should know — he spent nearly $8 million on it. Or rather, the Department of Homeland Security did.
Police Observation Devices_
Chicago's surveillance network began life as an experiment funded by the Chicago Police Department called Operation Disruption. In July of 2003 the CPD mounted 30 cameras to light poles in the city's most violent neighborhoods. The cameras were called Police Observation Devices, or PODs.
Each of the large, white, bullet-proof boxes was decorated to match CPD patrol cars, from their trademark checkerboard pattern to the bright blue lights that spun atop while in use. The goal was not merely to observe crime, but to project police presence into the neighborhoods that needed it most, rain or shine, every day of every year.
The first PODs were controlled by hand. Individual officers, equipped with bulky "camera control cases," sat in their cars and manipulated the state-of-the-art point-tilt-zoom (PTZ) cameras from just around the corner. It gave them super powers, like night vision and the ability to focus in with powerful lenses. They could see drugs and money trading hands in the dark of night.
Since the cameras were clearly marked, the CPD did not require a warrant. Crime simply happened, and police happened to be watching.
The results of the experiment, collected and published by the Chicago police, were telling. In areas where the PODs were installed, serious crimes like murder decreased by 17 percent, while other so-called "quality-of-life" crimes declined by 46 percent. Calls from citizens reporting drug-related crimes decreased by 76 percent.
Since the cameras were clearly marked, the CPD did not require a warrant. Crime simply happened, and police happened to be watching.
But the real stunner was what happened in the police beats immediately surrounding those under POD surveillance. In these areas, drug-related arrests more than doubled, increasing by 151 percent.
Like rats from a sinking ship, criminals were fleeing the areas being monitored by the "Blue Light Cameras," as they were known on the street. The CPD now had a quantifiable way to move drug crime from one part of the city to another.
Six months later police had more than doubled the number of PODs, from 30 to 80.
Before long there were too many cameras for beat cops to monitor by themselves. One of the stated goals of the program was to decrease police expenses. The city didn't want more super-powered officers; it wanted autonomous devices that didn't need to eat, sleep or retire to the suburbs with a pension.
So in 2006 the CPD contracted with IBM to create the largest city-wide surveillance system in the nation. Older POD cameras were made compatible with new wireless mesh technology; new ones were made smaller and more powerful. Software from a Canadian company called Genetec (located just down the street from Ubisoft's Montreal studio, where Watch Dogs is being made) meant that fewer officers were needed to monitor more cameras at once.
For the first time, direct surveillance of crime was given to another, newer agency within the city. While some are still monitored jointly by police, after 2007 all PODs were now under the direct control of the city's Office of Emergency Management and Communications, or OEMC. Instead of sworn police officers, the responsibility for remotely monitoring the city streets was handed over to "crime surveillance analysts."
A press release from 2007 gave the system a new name: Operation Virtual Shield. Bankrolling the creation of the OEMC's $3.5 million operations center was the Department of Homeland Security.
By 2010 the PODs numbered over 900.
Just as with ctOS in the Watch Dogs video game, after the camera system was in place, crime in Chicago began to decrease.
The CPD has been very open with their own statistics. In their 2010 annual report, published in 2011, they claim that during a one-year period from 2009 to 2010, violent crime (defined as murder, criminal sexual assault, robbery and battery) decreased city-wide by 9.2 percent. With the exception of one particularly hot and violent summer in 2007, the overall trend for crime over the decade beginning in 2001 has been down, with violent crime 34.4 percent lower in 2010 than in 2001.
That decline occurred because of many things, like more CPD officers, the reconstitution of police districts and the redistribution of police forces throughout the city. There are also other pioneering efforts, like the Community Alternate Policing Strategy (CAPS), an internationally recognized effort that gets beat officers and community leaders together on a regular basis to talk about their neighborhoods. But the Chicago Police lay a lot of the credit on their system of cameras.
And if you talk to members of the Chicago City Council, most citizens, especially those in neighborhoods with predominantly lower-income and minority residents, want more PODs.
Alderman Ricardo Muñoz is the city council representative from Chicago's Little Village neighborhood. His 90,000 citizens make up the city's 22nd Ward. The vast majority of his constituents are Mexican American, and more than half are under 22 years old. They can't get enough PODs.
"The neighbors all love them," Muñoz says. "They want them on every corner. Every neighbor wants a camera right here to make sure that the riffraff or the thugs that sometimes hang out on the corners don't hang out. Because [the PODs] are a deterrent."
Chicago's Englewood neighborhood, one of the most violent in the city, includes Alderman Toni Foulkes' 15th Ward. She says no one in her neighborhood doesn't want the cameras. In fact, she trusts the CPD implicitly about the number and placement of PODs.
"I would never tell them no," Foulkes says. "They're the police. They know. They have all the information."
"They're the police. They know. They have all the information."
Foulkes says that when there are complaints about the PODs, it's that they are so visible, so overbearing, that they lower the value of homes.
"I wasn't alderman when [PODs] first came out," she says. "But people thought that it brought down your property values, that people wouldn't buy in the neighborhood because they figured it was a bad neighborhood."
Over time PODs became smaller, less obtrusive. CPD calls the third generation of the devices "micro-PODs," and they are little more than gray plastic squares the size of junction boxes with a small blue light on top and a PTZ camera on the bottom. Instead of the massive, white police boxes that stand out, residents have to really look for them now to see them.
Polygon contacted more than 20 of the 50 aldermanic offices around the city. Only four aldermen agreed to speak with us on the record. Three of them came from the city's Progressive Caucus, a small group of aldermen who say they make a point to ask more questions of the legislation proposed by City Hall.
None was more outspoken than 32nd Ward Alderman Scott Waguespack. Citizens in his ward are predominantly white and middle to upper-middle class.
"I frankly don't think [PODs are] an answer," Waguespack says. "I don't mind seeing a camera up here and there, like at Wicker Park or one of these other areas. Maybe at a [rail] station. But I think what we run into time and again is, we would prefer to have more police out there instead of cameras popping up everywhere. ... In essence what [my constituents] tell you, and I feel this way too ... it's an intrusion on your privacy. That's the bottom line."
Waguespack says there are some of his colleagues at City Hall who want to fly drones over the city. "That's nuts," he says. "That's the next level of invasion of privacy."
The tipping point for Waguespack came in April of 2012. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, a life-long Chicagoan and former chief of staff to President Barack Obama, presented him with a plan to place speed enforcement cameras around two schools in the 32nd Ward.
Waguespack told Polygon that the mayor's pitch was that the cameras would protect children by ticketing anyone who drove over 25 miles per hour within 100 yards of a school. But something didn't add up.
Children walk to school in the morning and home in the early afternoon. Why, Waguespack asked the mayor's team, did the cameras need to run 24 hours a day, seven days a week?
"They were beating around the bush," Waguespack says. "And then somebody else jumps in. 'Well, I'll answer that question,' and it's a person from the police department. And I'm like, 'Wait a minute. What's your role in this whole thing?'"
Chicago Police told Waguespack that the cameras would be tied back to the OEMC and would help to run video analytics like license plate recognition and facial detection.
Community Alternate Policing Strategy:
Alderman Toni Foulkes invited Polygon to attend the Expanded Anti Violence Initiative (EAVI) meeting with her on Sept. 24, 2013. About 30 local leaders met at the District 7 police headquarters, as they do on the fourth Tuesday of every month, to discuss ways to combat violence in their community.
Directing the discussion was Officer Claudette Knight, one of the Community Alternate Policing Strategy (CAPS) officers assigned to this part of the city. What we observed during the meeting was a grassroots effort to find ways to curb violence, ways to establish dialogues and provide support for neighborhood families.
A representative of the Mayor's Office was there to discuss a new grocery store moving into the area. A leader of the Boy Scouts, an administrator from Kennedy King College, social activists, cancer researchers, pastors and neighborhood watch captains mingled with the chiefs of staff of sitting Illinois state senators. Officer Knight repeatedly solicited details about gang behavior and hot spots that could use police attention.
In Ubisoft's Watch Dogs surveillance has drifted to the background. It's hidden in plain sight on every building in the city. Players can hack into the ctOS on a neighborhood street and project themselves from camera to camera in a kind of digital parkour. By doing so they can get the drop on their enemies, access private information or just find a nicer car to steal.
But in the game's fiction, what those cameras are really doing is gathering data on citizens. They're collecting images of their faces and their license plates, cross-referencing that with dates and location data plucked from their cell phones and correlating it with police records and demographic information to create a database of people's actions.
If the ctOS is the disease, then the cameras are just a symptom.
The research Polygon conducted sought to find evidence, as Alderman Waguespack did, of similar symptoms in the real Chicago.
Today the number of POD cameras has plateaued, hovering at just over 1,200 for the past few years. But since 2007 Chicago has had many more cameras installed in city buses, on the city's network of elevated trains and train platforms, in schools, civic centers and museums.
Many cities in the world have done the same, but what makes Chicago unique is the integration of public and private cameras. Iconic buildings like the Willis Tower (formerly the Sears Tower) and the Hancock Building have voluntarily connected their surveillance systems to the OEMC, as did more than 1,000 Chicago businesses like Boeing. Even individuals were encouraged to connect their personal cameras to the city's Operation Virtual Shield.
Polygon has found estimates that suggest as many as 24,000 cameras are now connected to the OEMC Operations Center at 1411 West Madison on Chicago's Near West Side, the same facility bought and paid for by Homeland Security in 2007. If there is a real ctOS in Chicago, then it lives in the "OC." That single room has become a vital part of the day-to-day management of the city of Chicago.
It's so vital that they built another even more advanced room next door just so they could offload the management of the city's snow removal, traffic services, water management and weather forecasting. It gives the city's crime surveillance analysts more room to work with the cameras.
If all these cameras were to record 1080p high-definition digital video for just one day, at 30 frames per second, they would capture more than 2.9 petabytes of data. That's 576,000 hours of video per day or approximately 47 hours of recorded video for each of Chicago's 12,144 sworn police officers.
It is not possible for the OEMC to review that much video in real time. Andrew Elvish is the vice president of marketing at Genetec, the manufacturer of the software that IBM sold to Chicago to create Operation Virtual Shield. Their products allow for crime surveillance analysts in the OEMC to monitor many hundreds of video feeds in dynamic ways in real time.
Genetec's system also makes use of its video analytics, and it can be integrated with systems like the ones built by IBM.
"Analytics is really a way of understanding data that comes through the system," Elvish says. "It doesn't just mean visual data. It could mean infrared data, which is a form of visual data. But it could be sound. The most basic form [of analytics] is maybe you have a camera on and nothing is supposed to move in that scene.
"So the camera can say, 'There's motion, and I see it. Here it is.' That's a form of analytics. It's analyzing what it's seeing, or what's going on — the input — and providing intelligence. Analytics scale much more broadly than that.
"Are people getting choked up in a metro because the exits are not well set up? Are we noticing there's choke points in there? Is it dangerous? ... There's lots of analytics you can do on traffic cameras. Is there congestion in a traffic lane or in a highway?
"And then you get into very advanced analytics, like facial recognition. ... And that's where people are trying to understand the shape of our faces, our height, potentially our weight and age. That's where there's a lot of processing power required."
IBM markets their analytics systems with links to local news stories about how they participated in the search for Chicago School Board President Michael Scott's black Cadillac. Those links exist next to topics like "cognitive computing" and "neurosynaptic chips."
Another key business vertical for IBM is predictive analytics. This moves video and other types of virtual intelligence from performing searches on data gathered in the past up through data being gathered in the present to make educated guesses on where crime will happen in the future.
It's the very same kind of technology modeled in Watch Dogs, and Thomas Geffroyd, Ubisoft's content director, says that the IBM research was an inspiration for that aspect of the game.
Facial recognition in Chicago
Pierre Martin was arrested in May of 2013 and placed in Cook County Jail on a $300,000 bond. The charge was armed robbery with a firearm.
Martin was the first person arrested in Chicago using facial recognition software from NEC called NeoFace. The system, as well as the needed upgrades to Chicago's network, leveraged a $5.4 million federal grant from the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).
Chicago police used a camera mounted on the Chicago elevated train system to capture the image of a mugger just after he stole a cell phone. They then ran that image against 4.5 million criminal booking shots. Martin's mugshot came up as the closest match.
The Chicago Sun Times reported that Jonathan Lewin, commander of the Chicago Police Information Services Division "did not know how many photos might be submitted for matches, but he said detectives routinely seek surveillance photos as part of their investigations. Over the years, it has become easier to obtain them with all the security cameras linked into the city's computer network, along with the thousands of businesses that have their own cameras."
Commander Lewin declined to be interviewed for this feature.
For two months Polygon repeatedly reached out to city officials for comment. The Chicago Police did not respond to our requests for an interview about POD cameras. The OEMC likewise refused to comment about Operation Virtual Shield, as did the mayor's assistant press secretary, William McCaffrey.
After a detailed search of the public-facing city records, we were unable to find anyone at the OEMC with the title "crime surveillance analyst." More than half of the employees listed there have no titles. Sources tell us that the clerk's office has always shown titles for new hires at the OEMC, but that those titles are not always listed on public-facing city documents.
We asked IBM's Smarter Cities division to speak about the capabilities of the systems they build for cities like Chicago. They also declined to comment, saying they no longer worked on Operation Virtual Shield. They requested that we rely on information provided by the city of Chicago and Genetec.
Polygon still does not know how much video and other data Chicago captures on a daily basis, how long that data is held, who is allowed to view it or exactly what type of analytics are performed on it.
Aldermen Muñoz, Foulkes and Waguespack all gave conflicting information about their understanding of how the cameras operated and of how the video evidence was stored and managed. One says it is kept on hand for three days, another a month, while another told Polygon it was housed inside individual POD cameras and had to be manually retrieved by city contractors with a cherry picker.
The truth is that we still don't know what happens to the video captured by the city.
Waguespack puts it best when he says OEMC was "a black hole." Information goes in, but it rarely comes out.
The video used to solve the 2009 death of Chicago School Board President Michael Scott has never been released to the public. Not even his surviving family has seen it.
The more research Polygon conducted, the more eerily similar to the truth the plot for the Watch Dogs game became.
There is, at this time, a massive surveillance apparatus operating mostly outside the view of the citizens of Chicago. Advanced technologies are currently screening them and their vehicles every hour of every day. Massive amounts of data are kept on file by the city. The only way to opt out is to not go there.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois (ACLU-IL) is concerned about the state of affairs in Chicago. A report they issued in 2011 makes several proposals: First, it calls for "a moratorium on the deployment of more cameras"; second, "a comprehensive review of the past, present and future of Chicago's surveillance camera system"; and third, "new safeguards to protect the privacy and other rights of the public." None of these actions have been taken by the city, nor has the city council passed a single resolution pertaining to cameras and personal privacy.
In Ubisoft's near-future Chicago, it is the Blume Corporation that makes Chicago's trains run on time. Blume Corp. runs the elevated trains and the buses, controls the traffic lights and the supply of clean water and manages the surveillance network and the database of citizens' personally identifiable information.
The only thing missing from the situation in present-day Chicago, the only major piece of the plot line from the Watch Dogs fiction that has not yet come to pass, is the abdication by the mayor of control over Chicago's key city functions to private corporations.
Yet there is precedent in Chicago for privatization of city assets.
In 2009 the city signed a 75-year, $1.2 billion lease for its parking spaces. The revenue for that piece of city infrastructure now goes to a privately owned company called Chicago Parking Meters, LLC.
Just this month the responsibility for collecting fares for Chicago's light rail and bus systems was given over to San Diego-based Cubic Transportation Systems. That company chose to combine simple ticketing with an optional pre-paid debit card, a method of payment especially attractive to people with low incomes and poor credit histories.
Orange line = Police have stated this is the route Scott drove for 45 minutes prior to his death.
Yellow dots = Chicago publishes the location of every POD camera deployed to observe crime in the city.
Red dots = The location, number and type of other cameras installed throughout the city is not published. Large dots indicate five or more cameras at an intersection, while small dots indicate three or fewer.
On Monday, Nov. 16, 2009, police pulled the body of Board of Education President Michael Scott from the Chicago River. His black Cadillac was found nearby, parked near 350 N. Orleans. Video analytics designed by IBM were used to find footage of Scott's Cadillac driving through the Chicago Loop for 45 minutes prior to his death. At the time police stated they were only able to determine that Scott was not followed, and that his final moments were not caught on camera.
Polygon estimates that today there are more than 80 cameras observing traffic along Scott's route that night, including four within 100 feet of the Kinzie Street Bridge, where his body was found.
We asked Alderman Waguespack how hard it would be to stop Mayor Emanuel from selling off the OEMC and the surveillance of the city to a private company.
"It would be extremely hard to stop," he says. "Mayor [Emanuel] privatized the port authority. Nobody even knew that he did it. It showed up in the papers about a month ago, maybe six weeks ago. And a large group of the city council had no clue they were even considering the privatization of that asset.
"They could essentially cut a contract, not tell anybody in the city, and you could wake up the next morning and be walking through the park and ... know that you're on camera, but not know that it had been sold to some private entity or leased to a private entity to control that camera."
For Alderman Waguespack Watch Dogs is more than just a game. It's a warning.
"A lot of times I will ask direct questions in committee. ... It's disturbing to see that there's no good answers coming from the [Mayor's] administration on this stuff. If I were a citizen I would be very concerned about it. Not so much that you're not getting the answers, but that you're being thwarted from knowing who's watching you, how they're watching you and who has access to your private life.
"It's been very difficult, as an alderman, to sit through meetings on a constant basis and realize that people don't want you to know what's happening out there. That's really disturbing. And it's caused us to ask more and more questions."
Thomas Geffroyd, Ubisoft's content director, seems startled by the prescience of his own game.
"When we started five years ago we were thinking, 'Are we pushing too much? Are we too futuristic?'" he says. "But in the past few years the present has caught us. We feel [the game exists] in the present, in the now."
The advances in Chicago, and in other cities across the world, are also creating problems for Ubisoft. They're not sure where to go with a potential sequel to Watch Dogs.
"Reality has caught us," says Dominic Guay, Ubisoft's senior producer on Watch Dogs. "Looking further out to if we'd make a sequel to Watch Dogs, we could probably make a much bigger jump forward and probably have reality catching us again.
"That means we're on a relevant topic, something that's really changing the way we live in our cities today."
Editing: Russ Pitts, Matt Leone
Art Direction: Warren Schultheis
Layout: Warren Schultheis, Matthew Sullivan
Video: Tom Connors, Jimmy Shelton, Pat McGowan