At least eight US cities are quietly installing sophisticated audio surveillance systems on public buses, raising concerns about creeping government intrusion on citizens' privacy and civil liberties.
The Daily reports that city officials in San Francisco, Baltimore, Columbus, Hartford and the smaller cities of Concord, New Hampshire; Eugene, Oregon; Athens, Georgia and Traverse City, Michigan are pressing ahead with plans to install systems that will allow authorities to listen and record riders' private conversations in addition to the video footage already being recorded by existing devices. The audio systems will be linked to the video, allowing transit authorities or police to monitor the private conversations of every single bus passenger.
City officials and transit agencies claim that audio surveillance will allow them to better ensure passenger safety, solve crimes and resolve complaints. But civil liberties advocates are alarmed by what they see as a blatant and shocking violation of privacy.
"This is very shocking," University of Pennsylvania privacy law expert Anita Allen told The Daily. "It's a little beyond what we're accustomed to. The adding of the audio seems more sensitive."
The specter of Big Brother listening in on commuters' conversations raises the additional possibility of police or other authorities abusing or exceeding their power by snooping on conversations without warrants.
In San Francisco, where government officials and residents alike view their city as one of America's strongest bastions of progressive values, city transit officials recently approved a $5.9 million contract to install audio monitoring devices on 357 MUNI buses and historic trolley cars over the next four years, with an option for 613 additional vehicles.
A spokesman for the San Francisco Municipal Transport Agency (SFMTA) declined to discuss the agency's plans with The Daily, but the site was able to obtain procurement documents that explain why the famously liberal city was heading down such an Orwellian path.
"The purpose of this project is to replace the existing video surveillance systems in SFMTA's fleet of revenue vehicles with a reliable and technologically advanced system to increase passenger safety and improve reliability and maintainability of the system," city officials wrote.
Tellingly, the Department of Homeland Security is funding San Francisco's audio surveillance plans with a grant.
In Baltimore, audio surveillance is already underway on 10 city buses as part of a plan to install the devices on 340 vehicles. Audio recordings are kept for 30 days, according to the Baltimore Sun.
As in San Francisco, Baltimore city officials cite passenger safety as the main reason for eavesdropping on private conversations.
"We want to make sure people feel safe, and this builds up our arsenal of tools to keep our patrons safe," Maryland Transit Administration (MTA) administrator Ralign Wells told the Sun. "The audio completes the information package for investigators and responders."
Independent security consultant Ashkan Soltani told The Daily that the pretense of improving safety is merely a smokescreen used to justify increased government surveillance.
"This technology is sadly indicative of a trend in increased surveillance by commercial and law enforcement entities, under the guise of improved safety," Soltani said.
ACLU of Maryland attorney David Rocah said he was "flabbergasted" that MTA officials would go ahead and install surveillance devices under the guise of a pilot program similar to one that was rejected by the state General Assembly on three previous occasions.
"People don't want or need to have their private conversations recorded by MTA as a condition of riding a bus," Rocah told the Sun. "A significant number of people have no viable alternative to riding a bus, and they should not be forced to give up their privacy rights."
Some proponents of increased government surveillance note that airline passengers already implicitly agree to surrender many of their constitutional rights when they fly by consenting to Transportation Security Administration (TSA) security searches that many find invasive.
But by expanding Big Brother's watchful eyes-- and now ears-- into the buses that tens of millions of Americans rely upon for essential daily transport, government intrusion into citizens' private lives is being elevated to what many see as a frightening new level.
Maryland State senator and constitutional law expert Jamie Raskin told the Sun that Baltimore's new system is "a giant step forward in dissolving the privacy expectations of people who ride the bus."
Some civil libertarians say Raskin's comment reveals the true intent of ratcheting up surveillance of citizens. There was a time, not so long ago, when today's invasive TSA screenings would have seemed unimaginable. Today Americans take stringent airport security for granted. In the future, full spectrum surveillance on buses, and perhaps elsewhere, may also seem completely normal.