Mass Transit Meets Mass Surveillance

Maryland legislators want to limit the use of listening devices on public buses.


And listening too!
Denver Gingerich/Creative Commons

When you think of the surveillance state, you probably think of the National Security Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Department of Homeland Security. You probably don't think of the Maryland Transit Administration. Yet the latter agency has been installing cameras and listening devices on its buses for years. Yesterday the Maryland Senate advanced a bill to put some limits on how that hardware can be used.

The Washington Post has some background:

MTA began using recording devices inside some of its buses in 2012, without seeking legislative approval. Nearly 500 of its fleet of 750 buses now have audio recording capabilities. Officials say the devices can capture important information in cases of driver error or an attack or altercation on a bus.

Under the bill, recording devices would have to be installed near a bus or train operators' seat. The devices would be controlled by the driver and could be activated only in the event of a public-safety incident….

This is the fourth time in four years that the bill to limit the recordings has been introduced. Previous pieces of legislation have never made it out of committee, but [the Senate Judicial Proceedings] committee unanimously approved it this year.

The bill also creates a $1,000 fine for people who illegally share the government's recordings.

Objections to the bill have centered around two issues. One is the cost of replacing the existing devices. (Somehow, the people raising that concern don't seem interested in stopping the expansion of the listening system.) The other is the notion that these limits would somehow impair security. One state senator, the Montgomery County Democrat Nancy King, declared she doesn't "want to be in a position of telling the FBI they can't listen in on our buses."

The broader issue here is far larger than the MTA, and not just because several cities outside Maryland have been spying on bus riders too. Indeed, it's even larger than the potential for abuse. At this point we're used to seeing cameras everywhere; for better or worse, we've started adjusting our behavior to their presence. I don't think we're used yet to the notion that someone in a distant office can listen to private conversations we conduct in public. If that kind of eavesdropping becomes common, how might it change the ways we interact with each other?

Bonus video: ReasonTV's Todd Krainin covered Maryland's mass-transit surveillance back in 2013, when legislators narrowly rejected an earlier attempt to limit the use of these devices: