MTA is listening

The unblinking eye of the camera is increasingly all around us. On the street corner, inside the convenience store, in office building lobbies — not to mention in the hands of everyone with a cellphone. So it's not surprising that the Maryland Transit Administration's plan to activate microphones on buses is raising concerns about privacy.

But while there is a good conversation to be had about the slippery slope of lost privacy in Baltimore and elsewhere, this doesn't appear to be the place to draw the line. What the MTA is proposing is so mildly intrusive and the benefits so obvious that we suspect that, if polled, about 99 out of 100 transit riders would support the effort.

Here's why. First, it should be noted that MTA buses are already fully outfitted with video surveillance. There are six cameras pointed inside the typical transit bus, and they are used much as the local 7-Eleven uses cameras. The recordings are only reviewed when an incident — anything from a robbery to an accident to a complaint of a rude driver — is reported to transit police.

A digital video recorder in a locked compartment on board runs on a 30-day loop. Should police want to review any particular hour of any day, they must download the recording by computer before it is over-written. The downloaded recording is then kept as evidence, with an established a chain of custody much as police are required to follow with any evidence.

What the MTA is doing is essentially flipping a switch. Technicians are turning on the microphones on some or all of those video cameras on 10 buses in a pilot project so that video recordings will now have the benefit of an audio track. Why? Because police found some investigations were inconclusive from visual evidence alone.

Take, for instance, an assault. Was it provoked by something someone said? Did a passenger threaten the driver? Or vice versa? None of these things are discerned without the audio track.

And make no mistake, keeping buses safe — and giving passengers a reason to believe they are being kept safe — is crucial if the MTA is to continue to grow its transit operations. Crime on MTA buses has been in decline since video cameras were first introduced a decade ago.

There were 142 serious crimes (chiefly felonies such as robberies or aggravated assaults) reported in 2008, compared with 74 the past year, a nearly 50 percent decline, according to MTA police statistics. Meanwhile, ridership has grown from 217,429 passengers on an average weekday six years ago to 242,730 now, an 11.5 percent increase.

Are riders upset by the "Big Brother" presence on buses? If so, they aren't complaining, MTA officials say. Meanwhile, Baltimore's Charm City Circulator is in its third year of operations with fully operational video and audio surveillance, without incident or protest.

Make no mistake, it is entirely possible that such surveillance opportunities could be abused by overzealous law enforcement. But in the real world, that doesn't seem to be happening. Investigators simply don't have the time or opportunity to eavesdrop on conversations.

Nevertheless, lawmakers should review the MTA's surveillance procedures to make sure that privacy rights are respected and recordings kept safe. Several years ago, legislators refused to approve a bill that would have mandated audio recordings on buses. The MTA did not support the measure either. But that doesn't mean the agency's decision to move forward with audio recordings now is some kind of end run around the General Assembly's will, as some have alleged.

What elected officials should not do is to restrict surveillance practices simply to please the American Civil Liberties Union or any other special interest that opposes them on theoretical grounds. If lawmakers are concerned about the working poor who have no transportation alternative to MTA buses, they ought to ask them how they feel about video cameras — and the drop in crime they've helped make possible — before deciding to switch the microphones off.

Other transit systems are adopting similar digital recording technology for the same reasons the MTA is embracing the change — chiefly, to make buses as safe as possible. If that's good for convenience stores, gas stations and bank automated tellers, it should be good where people feel particularly vulnerable: inside an enclosed and sometimes crowded moving vehicle.

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