You’re sitting on the bus, near the back, with only a couple of other passengers on board, all out of earshot. You get a call from a family member who is having problems. They want your advice. Or a call from your doctor’s office, and you need to speak with them right away.
You should be able to have a private conversation that no one would overhear, even though you’re on the bus, but you can’t. There are six cameras throughout the bus – two with the audio recording function turned on, recording every word you say.
Think this couldn’t happen to you? Think again.
Right now, the Maryland Transit Authority is putting a plan in place that would ultimately turn on the audio recording capacity in cameras throughout its fleet.
Should people have to give up all rights to privacy just because they need to ride the bus?
The MTA’s position is that “this is all about passenger safety.” Many of the people who ride buses have legitimate concerns about their safety. But all buses already have video recording to deter crime. Turning on audio recording adds nothing in terms of safety: It is a crime to hit somebody, no matter what was said.
In fact, the MTA has not identified a single instance where the lack of audio recording meant that police were unable to prosecute someone for their illegal activities on a bus. With incredibly rare exceptions that are not relevant to personal safety concerns on public transportation, crimes are committed through actions, not words, and recording everything people say on a bus contributes nothing to keeping people safe.
And in that incredibly rare case where capturing what a person said might be important, there is a reasonable solution: the audio near the driver can be turned on. Since it can only record what the driver can hear, it would not capture anything that the speaker clearly intended to keep private.
Who are the riders whose privacy will be violated? What audio recording in buses really means is that mostly poor and a disproportionate number of African-American people – many of whom have no alternatives to riding the bus – will have less privacy than everybody else.? That’s not right.
And what is at stake goes far beyond what is said on public transportation. If the government can record all of the conversations that take place on public buses, what stops the government from recording all conversations that take place on every street? ‘Blue light’ cameras are already all over the City of Baltimore. The cost of the recorders and data storage continues to go down. Video and audio recorders could be placed on every utility pole and lamp post, and could record everything we say outdoors.
Software already exists to comb through audio recordings to identify and isolate particular speakers and words. And in other cities police are already combing through audio files recording on buses to monitor persons of interest, without any warrant or judicial oversight.
Thankfully, legislators have stepped forward to ensure that our privacy is protected. Legislation is now being considered in the General Assemby to prohibit continuous audio recording of conversations that take place as bus riders go to school, work, and visit their friends and families.
If successful, the legislation will make clear that Marylanders will not tolerate government audio surveillance of their every word in a public place.
Gerald Stansbury is President of the Maryland State Conference of NAACP Branches, firstname.lastname@example.org; and Susan Goering is the Executive Director of the ACLU of Maryland email@example.com.