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Senate to debate audio recording on buses, trains

Maryland senators are expected to debate a bill Thursday that would ban transit agencies from making blanket recordings of the conversations of passengers on public buses and trains.

"What they are doing is nothing short of mass surveillance," said state Sen. Robert A. Zirkin, chairman of the Senate's Judicial Proceedings Committee, which unanimously approved the bill last week.

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The issue first came to light in the fall 2012, when the first 10 Maryland Transit Administration buses with audio recording equipment were put into service in the Baltimore region. Signs were posted alerting passengers to the open microphones.

At the time, MTA officials said the audio recording would make passengers feel safer because the recordings could be used in court cases arising from incidents on buses or disciplinary cases involving drivers.

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Similar bills to ban audio recording on mass transit failed in 2013, 2014 and 2015. The bill's lead sponsor is Sen. Jim Brochin, a Baltimore County Democrat.

Zirkin told senators on Wednesday that now is the time to make a call on whether this is an acceptable practice or not. He framed the question as one of "liberty versus security."

"We have to make a decision whether we as a legislature think it's OK for the government to listen to citizens," said Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat.

Some senators expressed concerns Wednesday that their counties had already spent money on buses outfitted with the technology.

Banning the use of the technology "would render some of our bus fleet inoperable" until it could be removed," said Sen. Richard Madaleno, a Montgomery County Democrat.

"It's not an easy issue," he said.

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