Cities across America are equipping their public transport systems with audio recording devices, potentially storing every word spoken by passengers onboard. Rights activists say the surveillance plan by far exceeds what is necessary for security.
The multimillion dollar upgrade is underway in several US cities, including San Francisco, Eugene, Traverse City, Columbus, Baltimore, Hartford and Athens, reports The Daily, which obtained documents detailing the purchases.
The money partially comes from the federal government. San Francisco, for example, has approved a $5.9 million contract to install the eavesdropping systems on 357 modern buses and historic trolley cars over the next four years, with the Department Homeland Security footing the entire bill. The interception of audio communication will apparently be conducted without search warrants or court supervision, the report says.
The systems would be able to record audio and video from several locations in a bus for simultaneous playback. In Eugene transit officials explicitly demanded microphones capable of distilling clear conversation from the background noise. The recordings would generally be retained for 30 days. One of the systems produced for transport monitoring supports up to 12 high definition cameras, each with a dedicated microphone.
The system may potentially have additional capabilities added like timing the recording with GPS data from an onboard navigator, using facial recognition technology to identify people recorded or connecting wirelessly to a central post for real-time monitoring.
“This technology is sadly indicative of a trend in increased surveillance by commercial and law enforcement entities, under the guise of improved safety,” Ashkan Soltani, an independent security consultant whom the online newspaper asked to review specifications of equipment marketed for transit agencies, told The Daily.
Transport authorities gave various explanations for beefing up surveillance. A San Francisco contractor says the system will “increase passenger safety and improve reliability and maintainability of the system”. An Arkansas transit agency official said it is needed to deflect false complaints from passengers, describing it as “a lifesaver for the drivers”. Maryland officials openly called it a tool for law enforcement.
In some cases the systems are being installed despite resistance of civil liberties activists and lawmakers. In Maryland a legislative committee rejected a bill that would allow the local transport agency to proceed with its plan over concerns that it would violate wiretapping laws. The state’s attorney general advised the transportation agency to use signs warning passengers of the surveillance to help the system withstand a court challenge.
Privacy law experts say audio surveillance systems on buses pushes the boundaries of what is necessary to protect the law.
“It’s one thing to post cops, it’s quite another to say we will have police officers in every seat next to you, listening to everything you say,” said Neil Richards, a professor at Washington University School of Law.
With the microphones, he said, “you have a policeman in every seat with a photographic memory who can spit back everything that was said.”
Public transport is not the only place where citizens are worried about being constantly monitored by keen-eared recording devices. Similar systems combining audio and video recording with wireless connectivity are being installed in lampposts across the US.