They can hear you: US buses fitted with eavesdropping equipment
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Privacy law experts say audio surveillance systems on buses pushes the boundaries of what is necessary to protect the law.
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.”
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.