ACLU Opposes MTA Program Installing Pervasive Audio Surveillance of Riders as Significant Invasion of Privacy

October 18, 2012

MEDIA STATEMENT

 

CONTACT: Meredith Curtis, (410) 889-8555; media@aclu-md.org

 

BALTIMORE - Today, the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland spoke out against a Maryland Transit Administration (MTA) decision to implement a pilot program of recording audio on buses in Baltimore as a significant invasion of privacy. Legislation seeking to authorize audio recording on MTA vehicles - which the ACLU has strongly opposed - has been repeatedly rejected by the Maryland General Assembly. The buses in the pilot program will have seven cameras with audio on them, which means that conversations will be monitored throughout the bus. The MTA told the Baltimore Sun that they intend to expand the program to 340 buses, which is about half the fleet, by next summer.

 

ACLU testimony in opposition to the latest version of MTA audio legislation can be found at our website. This program is a possible violation of the Fourth Amendment and state wiretap laws (which prohibit recording private conversations without consent). However, one way to address privacy concerns would be to have the audio recording not operating at all times, but only turned on by the driver when there is an incident that needs to be documented.

 

The following may be attributed to David Rocah, staff attorney for the ACLU of Maryland:

 

"People should not have their private conversations recorded by MTA as a condition of riding a bus. 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 simply because they cannot afford a car.

 

We recognize that many conversations that take place on a bus (or anywhere else in public) are not private, because the speaker knows that others are nearby and can overhear.  But many other conversations (with loved ones, doctors, lawyers, financial advisors, etc.) may be private, precisely when others are not nearby, and cannot overhear.  But the audio recorders cannot distinguish between the two, and simply record everything.  The technology being used will defeat even the possibility of a private conversation.

 

The key principle at stake here is whether government can record all of our conversations that take place in public places. While we understand that MTA is seeking to activate the audio recording capability of existing video cameras to better document misconduct on MTA vehicles, the public safety rationale here could be used to justify surveillance in any public place. If the audio recording on buses is permissible, the government could also put audio and video surveillance on every lamppost or utility pole, and record everything we say and do in public. Once the database of conversations exists, nothing would prevent the government from using data mining software to sift through them, looking for potentially incriminating conversations among citizens who could then be identified with the video.  Doing so destroys the possibility of privacy in the public sphere, and is fundamentally inconsistent with the Fourth Amendment and state wiretap laws.  Moreover, the government cannot manufacture implied consent for things it otherwise cannot do simply by putting up a sign saying you no longer have any privacy, so warnings that you are being recorded do not solve the problem here."

 

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