When in a public space, like a city bus, you’re probably somewhat aware that conversations are not necessarily for your ears only — the bored eavesdropper could be hanging on every word of your one-sided phone call. But according to a report by The Daily, some city transit authorities are installing audio devices that will listen to what all passengers are saying.
The Daily’s Michael Brick reported cities including San Francisco, Hartford, Conn., Eugene, Ore., Columbus, Ohio, Traverse City, Mich., Athens, Ga., and Baltimore, Md., are deploying the technology, which is in some cases funded either entirely or in part by the federal government. Brick found the Department of Homeland Security is footing the entire bill for the surveillance system, which will be coupled with video cameras already in use on most buses, in San Francisco, for example.
Some of the transit authorities believe including audio surveillance will increase passenger safety, while others, like Joel Gardener, the executive director of Ozark Regional Transit in Arkansas, told The Daily the audio it could be a “lifesaver” for drivers because it could help refute false accusations of misconduct.
As with any news about increased citizen surveillance, there are those with concerns regarding the extent of the eavesdropping and how else the information collected could be used. The Daily explained further:
“This is very shocking,” said Anita Allen, a privacy law expert at the University of Pennsylvania. “It’s a little beyond what we’re accustomed to. The adding of the audio seems more sensitive.”
“Given the resolution claims, it would be trivial to couple this system to something like facial or auditory recognition systems to allow identification of travelers,” said Ashkan Soltani, an independent security consultant asked by The Daily to review the specs of an audio surveillance system marketed to transit agencies. “This technology is sadly indicative of a trend in increased surveillance by commercial and law enforcement entities, under the guise of improved safety.”
Some like the Maryland Transit Authority, which will install camera/audio systems on 340 buses, have pushed for use of the system for several years but have been met with public resistance, which has cited wiretapping laws and constitutional protection in arguments against the surveillance. The MTA plans to protect itself from those wishing to take the issue to court by posting warning notices on the bus about the devices, The Daily reported.
According to an article earlier this fall by in the Baltimore Sun, a legislative battle has been waged to allow the MTA to install the system, with several bills being rejected by the state’s House and Senate committees. This year though, the state attorney general’s office approved the system, saying it did not violate wiretapping laws. The MTA’s system will be capable for storing 30 days worth of data and was described as similar to an airplane’s black box by MTA administrator Ralign Wells, according to the Sun.
The Sun reported constitutional law expert Jamie Raskin, a Democratic state senator, saying use of the technology “sounds kind of Big Brotherish to me.”
Be sure to read Brick’s full article in The Daily for more information about increase surveillance on buses across the country here.
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