By Kashmir Hill
The Daily had an interesting report this week — picked up by Wired — about “government officials quietly installing sophisticated audio surveillance systems on public buses across the country to eavesdrop on passengers.” I know what you’re thinking: “Woo! More epic bus fight scenes that come with audio.”
The Daily points to millions of dollars worth of contracts to outfit buses with audio-video surveillance in cities across the country, including San Francisco, and suggests that the systems could be connected with “existing data from ticketing machines, global positioning systems, speech recognition software and face recognition software.” (I’m just hoping they can get connected to apps like NextBus so I know when the next one is coming.) We’re used to having video cameras trained on us at all times, but when the recording includes audio, we become more sensitive to the capture under the assumption that what we have to say is more revealing than what we look like when we say it. Technological advances are making it easier and easier to collect information about us, and everyone from governments to advertisers to transit systems are taking advantage of the new collection opportunities.
Two of the bus systems mentioned by the Daily already have their audio mikes in operation so I called them up. Butch McDuffie, transit director for Athens, Georgia, says his city has had microphone-enabled buses for over five years.
“We only pull the audio and video when we have an accident or a complaint investigation,” says McDuffie (who complained that the bus featured in the Daily story isn’t one of his — “There’s no Macon route in Athens.”). “When there are passenger complaints, the recording will either exonerate them or convict them.”
Each bus has three mikes, 6-8 cameras and a sign telling riders the bus is “under audio and video surveillance.” The recordings last for 14 days and then get recorded over — a privacy protective measure resulting from limited storage space on the buses’ hard drives. The video does not go to the cloud.
McDuffie called the Daily article “overkill” and “blown out of proportion.” “I don’t have the time or money to watch and listen to all of that footage,” he says. “I got other things to do with my time.”
The other bus system mentioned by the Daily that is currently rocking the mike is Baltimore‘s. Ten of their buses have audio recording as of October and they plan to expand to over 300 more of their fleet. Their buses keep recordings for 30 days and then start recording over the old audio and video footage. If this video and audio were to go to the cloud, these transit systems would need to think more seriously about data retention and coming up with limits when they’re not imposed by the technology.
“Video images are an essential tool for investigations, but in certain instances they’re limited,” says Terry Owens, spokesperson for the Maryland Transit. “If the camera is blocked or a person of interest is turned away from the camera, for example. When you marry audio and video, it provides a more full tool for investigators.”
Owens says the system’s New Flyer buses already had cameras with audio capability installed. “It was just a matter of flipping the switch on,” says Owens.
They see it as a problem deterrent — with signs warning people that they’re being recorded with video and audio — as a training tool — for teaching drivers how to deal with certain situations — and as a investigatory tool. “You can hear the tone of voice and the exact nature of the exchange,” says Owens. “We see it as a win-win, safeguarding passengers and drivers.”
So ideally, something like this doesn’t happen. Privacy advocates obviously don’t see this as a win-win. “It’s one thing to post cops, it’s quite another to say we will have police officers in every seat next to you, listening to everything you say,” Washington University law professor Neil Richards tells The Daily. “You [now] have a policeman in every seat with a photographic memory who can spit back everything that was said.”
“We only pull the audio/video if it’s required for an investigation. It’s not being monitored in real time,” says Owens. “We certainly understand the concerns raised and we’ve done what we can to allay them.”
Owens could not think of a time that the audio had been pulled in the last two months. McDuffie says they pull audio/video “four or five times per month.”
Increasingly, we live in a world of constant recording. And increasingly, it’s being suggested that recordings involve our conversations. Once the technology exists, it seems irresistible to install it and thus the surveillance state grows.