Big Brother is listening as well as watching

Audio surveillance on mass transit systems is all about passenger safety, according to officials. But civil liberties advocates call it a ‘gross violation of privacy.’ And they recently won the debate in New Jersey, where the program on some light-rail lines was shut down

By Taylor Armerding
July 4, 2016


Era of total surveillance

In a world of ubiquitous security cameras, most people know by now that some form of Big Brother – government or private – is watching them. But they are less likely to know that in some areas, he is also listening.

While it is not yet widespread, audio surveillance is increasingly being used on parts of urban mass transit systems.

That is the bad news, in the view of privacy advocates. But the good news is that public awareness can, at least in some cases, curtail it.

This past week, following revelations that New Jersey Transit didn’t have policies governing storage and who had access to data from audio surveillance on some of its light-rail trains, the agency ended the program.

The Associated Press reported in April that NJ Transit had been using audio recording systems on train lines between Trenton and Camden, in Newark and Hudson County.

Dennis Martin, former interim executive director of the agency, told the AP that the goal was to “deter criminal activity” and keep passengers safe.

But he refused to say how the audio data is stored, for how long, who reviewed it and when or how it was destroyed, saying only, “there are laws that govern that and we’re in compliance.”

Critics, including commuter organizations, contended that the recording violated both the First Amendment (free speech) and Fourth Amendment (unreasonable search) rights of passengers.

Nancy Snyder, an agency spokeswoman, said the decision came after an, “internal review that involved weighing security benefits, operational necessities and evolving industry practices.”

Jeanne LoCicero, ACLU-NJ deputy legal director, welcomed the decision to end what she called, “this extreme invasion of privacy."

Of course, New Jersey is not alone, nor is it the first. The Baltimore Sun reported in March that the Maryland Transit Administration (MTA) has used audio recording on some of its mass transit vehicles since 2012. It is now used on 65 percent of buses, and 82 percent of subway trains have audio recording capability, but don’t use it yet, according to the Sun.

And cities in New Hampshire, Connecticut, Michigan, Ohio, Nevada, Oregon and California have either installed systems or moved to procure them, in many cases with funding from the federal Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

Rebecca Herold, CEO of The Privacy Professor, noted that it goes beyond mass transit. She said there were reports a month ago that, “the FBI/government planted audio recorders around San Francisco at bus stops, rocks, trees, lights – wherever there may be people who may be speaking with others about a specific case. They were trying get evidence for a fraud case.”

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