The state could be listening on buses and trains

Feb 25, 2016

A bus picks up passengers in Baltimore.
Credit Wikimedia Commons

Imagine talking to a friend or a spouse about something personal while on a MARC train or a public bus. Now imagine state officials are listening in. 

A bill state senators are scheduled to consider Thursday morning would prevent that scenario. But it may already be happening.

The Maryland Transit Administration records video on all of its buses, often without sound. A few years ago, the agency began recording audio, and now it has more than 400 buses capable of recording conversations.

MTA plans to expand the program in the name of public safety. Some subway cars already record both audio and video, but MTA plans to add audio surveillance to light rail beginning next month.

Baltimore County Sen. Jim Brochin likened the plan to George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984. The Democrat said he plans to read from the book Thursday as lawmakers consider his bill barring the MTA and local transit agencies from recording audio on buses and trains.

"They believe there is no expectation of privacy on any mode of public transportation that the state of Maryland controls. If you're with your significant other, your kids, your loved one and having a conversation, then you should have no expectation of privacy," he said. "And I reject that."

Sen. Bobby Zirkin, another Baltimore County Democrat, said video recordings without sound are both sufficient for public safety purposes and less intrusive.

However, MTA Chief of Staff Jim Knighton told lawmakers earlier this month that the agency has used audio recorded on buses to solve six crimes.

“We feel we should have as many tools at our disposal as possible to keep the public safe when they’re on our buses," he said.

Knighton said the agency only actually listens to the recordings when an incident, such as a violent crime, occurs.

But the union that represents MTA bus drivers isn’t convinced by the public safety argument. Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1300 President David McClure told a Senate committee a few weeks ago that the recordings are often used against bus drivers.

“They try to utilize it more toward discipline, even though they try to say that they do not," he said.

Brochin and other lawmakers say the audio surveillance program raises a host of privacy concerns.

The issue falls in a legal gray area, according to University of Maryland Law Professor Mark Graber. In the past, conversations that took place outside your home were not considered private. But new technology complicates that idea, he said.

“As government develops the technology, can government follow everybody around, watching everything they do and listening to everything they say?” he asked.

He said government has to draw a line somewhere. 

“Given how many conversations take place on a train and the incredibly minute percentage that are of legitimate interest to government,” he said, “it would seem to me that government has to give a more specific reason about why you want to tape people."

Maryland law requires that someone give consent before being recorded. The MTA says it does this with a sign on buses telling riders they are being recorded.

But Sara Love, public policy director at the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, said that isn’t good enough.

"It’s like the government putting a sticker on your cell phone that says, 'By talking on this cell phone you’re consenting to us record everything you do,'" she said. "You don’t give up your rights by using the public transportation.”

Brochin pointed out that low-income populations are likely disproportionately affected by the surveillance program.

"I'm worried about people who have no other mode of transportation — black, white, Hispanic, whatever — who have no other mode of transportation and don't have the economic means to have a car, having to give up their civil liberties in order to ride the bus," he said. "It's just not fair."