Public Transit Becomes Another Tool for Total Government Surveillance

City's new bus system comes with 24-7 camera feeds.


Surveillance camera
Antares614 /

Richmond, Virginia's new bus-rapid-transit system, the Pulse, has been beset with controversy. The original price tag of $49 million has risen to around $65 million. Some community leaders and City Council members thought its footprint didn't go far enough. The system was supposed to be up and running months ago, and businesses along the affected Broad Street corridor have complained about the way the drawn-out construction has kept customers away.

City marketers like to say Richmond is "easy to love," but loving the Pulse takes more effort. Now there's another reason to harbor a resentment against it: surveillance.

Last week Style Weekly's Brad Kutner reported that the system's 26 stops will have around four security cameras each—"making for more than 100 new surveillance devices on the roughly 7.5-mile stretch."

Moreover: "These stationary cameras will always be on, day and night, and their live feeds will be viewable from 911 headquarters, through the city's Department of Emergency Communications, as well as at GRTC's radio room." The Pulse buses also come with several surveillance cameras.

City and law-enforcement officials promote the cameras' benefits. A spokesman for the State Police says cameras help find "missing children, abducted persons and wanted offenders."

A spokesman for the Greater Richmond Transit Company offers a different rationale. She says by email that the cameras serve "the safety of our patrons. … If there is a need at a station, we can immediately see the need and respond accordingly. This ensures we are able to provide exceptional customer service for GRTC riders."

Responding immediately to a need, however, suggests the cameras will not only operate around the clock, but be monitored around the clock as well. Which means Pulse patrons could be under surveillance whether they have a need or not—and despite the fact that the stations also come equipped with emergency call boxes.

That would be troubling enough in its own right. It seems all the more troubling given the widespread understanding that one purpose of the Pulse is to help people of modest means—in particular the majority-black population of Richmond. The Pulse is considered a "literal lifeline to jobs, services, and opportunities" for "households without a car." The relief that comes from having better transportation opportunities might be tempered by the oppressive sense that you're constantly being watched, just in case.

True, people have become accustomed to surveillance cameras. They dot the ceilings of big-box retailers like measles. They peer down at customers in banks, and those using ATMs and self-checkout lines. They stand guard at the entrances to apartment buildings and tony subdivisions. And they keep watch for cheaters at toll-road collection plazas.

But most of those cameras reside on private property, and they generally are used to look out for specific offenses, such as shoplifting. Cameras that proliferate in public spaces watch everyone, for no particular reason. Just in case.

Granted: Nobody has a right to privacy in a public place. But there's a big difference between occasional, incidental observation and constant, intentional scrutiny. It's the difference between driving past a police car at an intersection and being followed by a police car for miles.

The Supreme Court has recognized that distinction too, in a series of cases about law-enforcement monitoring. It has ruled that placing a GPS monitor on a suspect's car without a warrant violates the Fourth Amendment, that having a dog sniff around your front porch constitutes a search, and that a convicted sex offender cannot be forced to wear a GPS tracking device so authorities can monitor his movements.

Each of those cases involved known criminals or suspected criminal activity, and the court still imposed limits on government action. Omnipresent security cameras lack such a rationale: They monitor everybody.

But even setting aside the concern about creeping Big Brotherism, there's another reason to question the cameras: Will they do any good?

London is one of the most heavily surveilled cities on the planet. British officials have spent hundreds of millions of pounds to install more than 50,000 security cameras monitored by the police (private businesses have installed hundreds of thousands more).

Yet data from the London Police show that crime has hardly budged. In 2017, the city saw 27,400 criminal offenses. The figure dipped over the next two years, then rose. In 2016 the total was 26,079. Cameras might help catch the occasional perp, but they don't seem to deter anyone.

Richmond officials didn't have much choice about installing the cameras; they were required as part of the roughly $25 million in federal funding the city received to build the Pulse. It's just another reminder that he who pays the piper calls the tune. In this case the song sounds a bit like a dirge.

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  1. I would mind government security cameras a whole lot less if the feeds were available to the public.

    As much as I don’t like being on camera wherever I go, private cameras aren’t being watched by government thugs with the secretive bent they all love for themselves alone. And cameras are so cheap that pretty soon, everyone will be able to afford a 24/7 camera necklace. That genie is out of the bottle. I just object to police abuse of them.

    A nice addition would be an additional feed showing you all the cameras the cops are watching, so you can see whose windows they are peeping in, whose bluse they are looking down, and whose skirt they are looking up.

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  2. Meh.

    If we are ok with police wearing cameras, I can’t get too worked up over this. Have police cameras acted as a deterrent ? Doesn’t seem like it, but I’d still rather they have them.

    Similarly, a lot of Uber drivers record their rides…and I couldn’t care less. I think mostly this is used to for after-the fact analysis, like who did what to who.

    I remember reading about a civilian Gorgon-stare type system, that would record everything going on in a city in super hi-res. So, if there was a robbery, you could just see where the perps drove to. That seems quite a bit more chilling…while at the same time having more chance of deterring crime.

  3. They sell these things with the idea that the cameras will be used to help crime victims, but they won’t. They’ll be used to catch drug dealers, hookers, and others engaging in voluntary activity. But muggings, rapes, and such? Not a chance.

  4. You’re…a…Public Transportation Tool!

  5. A city bus is not somewhere I’d be expecting any privacy…

    1. The guy jerking off in the seat behind you agrees.

    2. But the cameras are AT a bus stop. Which means a view of the surrounding area not just actual bus riders. So maybe there should be bright red lines showing where the line of sight is for each government monitored camera?

      Follow the money; these are federal cameras.

      1. Oh, ok, in that case it’s still in public so I don’t care.

      2. Outside of my house is not somewhere I’d be expecting any privacy…


        1. Some us like to mow our lawn the way God intended.

          1. With a goat?

          2. With your teeth?

          3. By hiring Guatemalan teenagers of dubious immigration status to do it?

            1. But only if they’re orphans.

              1. And only if my entire monocle collection is thoroughly polished.

    3. Last time I took a bus the teen mom behind me was eating a Hardees burger with extra onions and changing the poopy diaper of her spawn.

      1. One of the last times I was on the bus a guy was just drinking Papov straight from a handle. I was more impressed than anything.

      2. Well, I’m not thrilled by poopy diapers, but people who complain about the smell of onions deserve whatever they get.

    4. Back in the late 80s and early 90s, buses and bus stops were where I bought a lot of my drugs.

  6. Why be shocked? This is the new reality. Face it, the future is no privacy. That’s been obvious for years. Technology, once invented, will be used–you can’t stop that.

    So relax.

  7. Where are the underprivileged supposed to masturbate in public with some privacy, then?

    1. Crusty hardest hit!

  8. I’m fine with the cameras but when do we get to put them in the city offices?

    1. You can video in the publicly accessible areas of all government buildings.

      1. “You can video in the publicly accessible areas of all government buildings.” Give or take $100K in legal fees and three years for a court to issue a decision to the effect that this particular government organ has to obey the law – but will not be penalized for breaking it.

      2. Nor can you screw your camera to the wall in a public building, so you can monitor what the civil serpents are doing while you aren’t there.

    2. It will be easy to tell.
      There will be seals broken, there will be trumpets, there will be bowls of wrath, there will be horsemen – – – – – – –

  9. Does the presence of cameras markedly change criminal behavior?

    Why would the feds want there to be cameras? Ostensibly these are only viewable by local agencies. Wouldn’t it be better to let the localities receiving the grants decide if they need them?

    1. The feds make all kinds of conditions for receiving federal money. They do it because they don’t have the power to actually mandate these things. But they can make it a condition of receiving free money. Why? Fuck you, that’s why.

      1. Wasn’t the drinking age raised in a similar way? Maybe it was something else.. States had to do what the feds said or risk losing federal highway money.

        1. Drinking age, speed limit, yes. Those are the ones we know about. There must be thousands of other mandates we never heard of. It’s how the federal government imposes its will in areas where it has no explicit power. All thanks to the 16A. Before that the feds could tax income, but they’d have to give the money back based on census, enumeration, or whatever. Basically it couldn’t be used at a tool for coercion. Now it’s how the feds force the states to do things. They take money from the people, and only give it back to the state governments if they jump through a bunch of hoops. It’s sick if you ask me. But no one does.

          1. “It’s sick if you ask me. But no one does.”

            It is pretty messed up to use a third party’s money as leverage in a dispute. Given the hyper-dependence of local governments on federal tax dollars, I wonder if the small glimmers of federalism that remain (as with pot legalization) are mirages. Certainly if the DEA was getting low on funds they could go raid a legal grow operation and seize some property. They are averting their gaze out of benevolence. Aren’t we lucky?

  10. “In 2017, the city saw 27,400 criminal offenses. The figure dipped over the next two years…”

    Who took the House last year? Looks like I’ve been oversleeping.

  11. “These stationary cameras will always be on, day and night, and their live feeds will be viewable from 911 headquarters,

    Dramatic re-enactment of the schmuck who’s job will be to watch those live feeds.

  12. Where I used to work we had surveillance cameras inside and in the parking lots but the guards were usually reading the newspaper or sleeping instead of watching the monitors. Cars were always being stripped/stolen.

  13. Coming to a self-driving car near you, right after regular vehicles are made illegal and all ‘classic’ cars are rendered impossible to drive through EPA standards.

    Is this what freedom smells like?


    1. I remember when freedom smelled like sulfur laden diesel, burning oil, and gas fumes making their way out the tail pipe. Freedom stank like a poorly maintained lawn mower crossed with boiled eggs.

    2. No, the smell is:

      Well-weathered leather
      Hot metal and oil
      The scented country air

      The sound of freedom is that of a Red Barchetta.

  14. A reversible jacket, some sunglasses and a wig, and a can of spray paint.

    This is what we use to play with the red light cameras around here.

    We like to see how long it takes for them to be repaired.

  15. The deep state has learned nothing from the outcry over Stazi-like universal surveillance.

    Welcome to 1984 and Big Brother

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