MTA recording bus conversations to eavesdrop on trouble

The MTA has begun activating audio recording on video cameras on buses to help police, insurance investigators and customer service reconstruct incidents. The first 10 buses are on the street, each with signs alerting passengers.

A Maryland Transit Administration decision to record the conversations of bus drivers and passengers to investigate crimes, accidents and poor customer service has come under attack from privacy advocates and state lawmakers who say it may go too far.

The first 10 buses — marked with signs to alert passengers to the open microphones — began service this week in Baltimore, and officials expect to expand that to 340 buses, about half the fleet, by next summer. Microphones are incorporated in the video surveillance system that has been in place for years.

"We want to make sure people feel safe, and this builds up our arsenal of tools to keep our patrons safe," said Ralign Wells, MTA administrator. "The audio completes the information package for investigators and responders."

Wells said the system was deemed legal by the state attorney general's office and letters were sent to the American Civil Liberties Union and the union representing bus drivers informing them of the initiative. A spokesman for the attorney general's office confirmed that transit officials were advised by their counsel that based on a 2000 appeals court decision, the audio recordings did not violate the state wiretapping law.

But an ACLU lawyer said he was "flabbergasted" that MTA officials would try to record people's conversations under the guise of a pilot program after a similar proposal was rejected in 2009 by the state's highest-ranking transportation official and by the General Assembly on three occasions.

"People don't want or need to have their private conversations recorded by MTA as a condition of riding a bus," said David Rocah, a staff attorney with the Maryland chapter of the ACLU. "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."

Wells said a digital recorder similar to an aviation black box and capable of storing 30 days of audio and video information is locked in an equipment box on each MTA bus. In the event of an accident, an incident involving passengers or a complaint against a driver, investigators can remove the recorder and download the file for review.

The cost is negligible, Wells said, since the six cameras inside each bus are capable of recording audio and all new buses will have audio-video systems as standard equipment.

MTA police dispatchers receive 45 to 100 daily calls for assistance from bus drivers for everything from an unhappy rider to criminal activity, said Capt. Burna McCollum, commander of the MTA police technical services division.

Video is a critical tool for investigators sorting out the details of an incident, but when witnesses walk away, are reluctant to cooperate or give conflicting accounts, an audio recording can fill in missing information, McCollum said.

Surveillance policies in the region vary widely. The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority and Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority use security cameras on their buses but draw the line at audio recordings of passengers. Montgomery County's 335-bus Ride On system is about to add audio surveillance to its video capability. Baltimore's nearly three-year-old Circulator buses record both video and audio.

Two members of the state Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee say the MTA's decision to record passengers without their consent is troubling.

"It's an end run and ripe for a court challenge," said Sen. James Brochin, a Baltimore County Democrat. "They have absolutely no grounds to do this. If we can't get them to listen and change their minds, we'll deal with this ... and make them defend what's indefensible."

Sen. Jamie Raskin, a Montgomery County Democrat and a constitutional law expert, said that while he understands the need to protect public transportation customers, "this sounds kind of Big Brotherish to me."

Raskin said bus patrons should have been consulted, and a clear policy on who has access to the recordings and how long they are kept should have been spelled out to the public before the program was initiated.

"This is such a giant step forward in dissolving the privacy expectations of people who ride the bus," he said. "Legislators are going to want to know what the compelling reason is for initiating this now."

In 2009, the acting secretary of the Maryland Department of Transportation derailed a similar MTA proposal and asked for more review, calling privacy matters "the ultimate test of people's trust in government."

In each of the last three legislative sessions, bills filed on behalf of MTA to authorize recording devices and establish ground rules for their use were rejected in committee.

"When House and Senate committees individually look at a proposal and nearly unanimously reject it, you know it's bad public policy," Brochin said.

But one of the bills' sponsors, Del. Melvin Stukes, an MTA customer service investigator, said state officials have been "gun-shy" in dealing with the ACLU and unions. The intent of the legislation, he said, was to eliminate bad language that often sparks violence.

"This is not your bathroom. This is not your bedroom. Buses are public spaces and people are elbow to elbow," Stukes said. "I'm not trying to punish people. I'm just trying to clean up problems I hear about every day so that people realize that MTA is trying to provide a more congenial, more cordial ride."

The chairman of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee predicts that the entire matter will have to be resolved by the legislature.

"If this is something that's necessary and useful, standards must be set for oversight and accountability," said Sen. Brian Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat. "The job of figuring this out definitely should not be left to the agency doing the listening."