Your bus may be spying on you

Technically Incorrect: In another round of the slugfest between security and privacy, Maryland lawmakers are objecting to buses that get in your business. A bill before the state senate would limit audio recording on public transit.

Chris Matyszczyk
3 min read

Technically Incorrect offers a slightly twisted take on the tech that's taken over our lives.

In Maryland, buses have ears.

MJofLakeland1; YouTube screenshot by Chris Matyszczyk/CNET

This privacy versus security thing is becoming both heated and convoluted.

It's easy to get the impression that security is anything the authorities say it is.

It's also easy to get the impression that privacy is an antiquated concept, something rendered obsolete by Mark Zuckerberg.

In Maryland, for example, not everyone may know that many of the Maryland Transit Administration's buses can record passengers' conversations.

As The Washington Post and The Baltimore Sun report, the state senate is now considering a bill that would limit this snooping.

"What [the MTA] is doing is a mass surveillance," Maryland Sen. Robert Zirkin, a Democrat, told the Post.

It's odd, then, that this has been going on for four years. Almost 500 of Maryland's 750 buses now have the capability, the Post says. Signs in the vehicles tell passengers their conversations may be recorded. The authorities view those signs as representing consent.

Currently, there's no stipulation that the devices should be switched on by the driver only when there's a safety concern.

This, among other things, is what the new bill is trying to bring into law, an effort that's been going on (and failing) since 2012, when the recording began.

The recording devices were inserted into MTA buses without legislative approval. At the time, officials said they'd received legal advice that the recordings didn't violate the state's wiretapping law. This, to some, was quite some tap dance.

Those who support the recording say it's intended to help investigate crimes, accidents and customer-service issues. Some also point to homeland security. Clearly, supporters say, when there's an incident, like a passenger or driver misbehaving, it's good to have audio. Moreover, not everyone is keen to go on record as a witness when something does occur. Witnesses can also have conflicting views of what happened. Having audio (on top of video, which vehicles also have) gives investigators added, objective evidence.

However, Zirkin told the Post: "I can make an argument to tape everybody, everywhere -- everywhere they walk, everywhere they talk -- and you can make the excuse for homeland security. But that is not a valid reason to encroach this fundamentally on people's privacy rights."

WYPR radio reports that MTA Chief of Staff Jim Knighton told lawmakers the audio is listened to only when an incident occurs. An MTA spokeswoman told the Sun that only the relevant portion of a recording is saved and that other audio is taped over when the storage drive is full.

The MTA told me it couldn't comment on the specifics of the amendments being proposed, as it hadn't been given their precise language. But it offered statistics that incidents of assault and theft on MTA buses fell from 356 in 2012 to 108 last year.

"This legislation prohibits a proven, effective public safety tool and puts students and all MTA riders at greater risk," an MTA spokeswoman told me.

Not everyone agrees.

"Given how many conversations take place...and the incredibly minute percentage that are of legitimate interest to government," University of Maryland law professor Mark Graber told WYPR, "it would seem to me that government has to give a more specific reason about why you want to tape people."

The issue revolves around some of the same ideas as does the current contretemps between Apple and the FBI. Where's the line between protecting against one or two eventualities (however dramatic) and spying on everyone?

Maryland isn't the only state that's wrestling with this problem. In 2014, Boston Public Schools decided to mute the microphones on its school buses after a public outcry.

Of course, one problem for Maryland is money. A retrofit wouldn't be cheap.

As technology has proliferated, some devices (Samsung's Smart TVs, for example) might record your private conversations by accident.

The difference here is that it's the express intention of the devices to record private conversations.

Who can possibly feel secure about that?