Surveillance State: Maryland is Listening to You

Do you know that your local city bus might be listening to your conversations?

Depending on where you live, the sidewalks could be recording your every step. And your lampposts and subway cars may be watching you, too.

Once a paranoid notion of science fiction, perpetual state surveillance is fast becoming the new normal. In some cases, the technology is being activated without the consent of the public.

When the Maryland legislature considered a bill to turn on audio recording devices inside its statewide fleet of 758 buses, it set off a fierce debate in the Senate. Delegate Melvin Stukes argued that audio surveillance is a powerful tool to help fight crime, and individuals cannot expect privacy on public transportation. Opposing him was senator James Brochin, who warned of an assault on civil liberties and the frightening potential for government abuse.

But make no mistake, this was more than a clash of two powerful state politicians. This was a struggle between two cherished American values: privacy versus security. It’s a conflict that’s playing out in communities all across the United States.

So far, surveillance is winning. After the Maryland legislature rejected three bills that sought to activate audio surveillance in buses across the state, the transit authority turned them on anyway, on the advice of the state attorney general.

Do citizens get any say in the matter? In a 1967 ruling, Katz v. United States, the Supreme Court affirmed that the individual right to privacy depends largely on a set of norms that are determined by society. In other words, if you have a reasonable expectation of privacy – even if you're in a public place – then you are entitled to it.

Surveys show strong and growing public support for some kinds of surveillance. An April 2013 New York Times poll shows that 78% of respondents approved the use of video cameras in public places. Terrorist incidents like Boston Marathon bombings have made the public ever more receptive to cameras in the name of fighting crime. (The poll didn't ask about audio recording.)

A recent study by the Urban Institute concludes that surveillance has a significant effect on reducing crime. Baltimore, a city with the fourth highest murder rate in the nation, has benefitted from video cameras, as have Chicago, and Washington, D.C.

Yet downsides remain. Even in the young history of audio-visual surveillance, the ACLU notes that the technology has already been abused. Members of law enforcement have used information gleaned from cameras to blackmail, spy, and harrass citizens. And if these crimes seem relatively minor now, imagine how a future J. Edgar Hoover would make use of the all-seeing eye, with its powers of voice-matching and face-recognition.

It's a worrisome prospect. Senator Brochin, who accepts video cameras while condemning audio surveillance, is quick to remind us how eavesdropping poses a threat to an open, democratic society. Citing the widespread use of covert listening devices in authoritarian countries, he remains concerned about what the future is going to look – and sound – like.

Surveillance technology has certainly become powerful, and promises to become more so. But when and whether that technonology is used – that power still remains with us.

Runs about 8:12 minutes.

Produced, shot, and edited by Todd Krainin.

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  • Emmerson Biggins||

    Isn't maryland one of those states where it's illegal to record your own phone calls, unless you tell other person? Or was that virginia?

  • Live Free or Diet||

    Maryland. Someone can make threats against you and it's a felony to record it.

    I despise MD.

  • ArbutusJoe||

    It's one of those states with an obsolete nickname.

  • Live Free or Diet||

    I have a hat with IR LEDs in it that screw up cameras. I wear it in airports and other places with cameras as an act of BS disobedience.

    If I rode MD buses I'd have to find a similar idea for audio. What about an induction loop playing Galt's speech?

    Suggestions?

  • ||

    Where'd you get a hat like that?

  • Inigo M.||

    "Surveys show strong and growing public support for some kinds of surveillance."

    Really? I'd like to know more about who was polled and what questions were asked. It's hard to believe that a majority of people are that dumb, or that they are that ready to give up any shred of privacy they have left simply to avoid a threat that is statistically less likely to happen than car crash or even a lightning strike.

  • wwhorton||

    I'll tell you. Baltimore City, Montgomery and Prince George's Counties. I swear to god, if we could jettison those shithole statist hives the entire states would be better off.

    It really is like how NYC gets all the attention and calls all the shots yet is almost entirely unlike the rest of the state. Those three areas pretty much run the show, but, even in godforsaken Annapolis (which is trying to turn itself into Georgetown East), it's like you're riding in a taxi and the driver's telling you where you're going to go. And thanks to the Dems gerrymandering the state to Texas levels, it'll only get worse.

  • Inconsistencies||

    There are countermeasures available.

  • BLEEDINELL||

    Maryland, where you can't record a conversation or videotape an act without the subjects permission, yet the state can with impunity.
    Fuck Maryland.

  • Barnstormer||

    I agree with the spirit of the posts here. Maryland is a disgusting place.

  • PissedOffVoter||

    MTS in San Diego has had video & audio recorders in their bus's for a year or more. It has mostly been used to verify or disprove injury claims by bus riders. Not to say it is not being abused since San Diego police (& presumably the Fed's) have a direct connection into MTS's surveillance system.

    The Trolleys are also equipped. In addition the Trolly stations have high def video with facial recognition software, I heard the CEO of MTS mention in a meeting they had captured a "FBI most wanted" suspect that way over a year ago.

  • yonemoto||

    I see by the use of the word "browndoggle" you are a KFI 640 listener instead of a KOGO 600 listener. YOU TRAITOR. J/k. I listen to 640 too.

  • Favaunt||

    In light of the Edward Snowden bombshell dropped yesterday, Reason's Maryland surveillance story of last week hit the nail on the head. We need to inform Americans of what our democracy is based on — and become outraged at the intrusion into our privacy.

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