New Jersey public transit was recently forced to remove the bugs it had installed on its light rail system after a public outcry, however Baltimore’s buses and subways remain under audio surveillance. All the while in Oakland, cops have hid mics around bus-shelters near the courthouses to capture audio of defendants and their lawyers discussing their cases.
The argument for these things goes, “No one is listening to them unless a crime is committed, and then they’re of forensic value — besides, you’re in a public place, where you have no expectation of privacy.”
We’ve seen that warehoused surveillance data is intrinsically leaky (anything you collect will probably leak, anything you retain will definitely leak); we’ve also seen that making the haystacks bigger doesn’t make it easier to find the needles hidden in them.
Then there’s the chilling effect of knowing that you’re under surveillance: it’s the cornerstone of the Chinese internet control model, which holds that the easiest way to manage dissent and prevent the transmission of politically unpopular views is to simply let everyone know that everything they say is on the record.
Finally, there’s the race/class dimension of all this: public transit is overwhelmingly the province of poor Americans, who are also overwhelmingly racialized Americans. No one is proposing to fill the first class cabins of airlines with hidden mics (though the 9/11 terrorists flew in that cabin), nor are they proposing to bug timeshare jets, even though these would be much easier to hijack (and are subject to fewer searches) than a commercial airliner.
The belief that we should record all speech in “public” places on the off-chance that the recordings can be used later in a crime investigation terminates with mics in the salt-cellars of every diner table, mics on every urban short-hire bicycle, in every elevator, in every building lobby, in every bar. If you support mics on city buses but not on business jets, you’re really supporting continuous surveillance of poor people and the freedom to speak freely for the elites.
Tien said transit officials may argue that posting notice that audio surveillance is in use means that anyone who rides those vehicles has consented. “But I don’t think that’s honestly consent,” he said.
There are also political and demographic issues at play. Privacy advocates say conversations involving nothing more threatening than strong opinions on politics, or politicians, could be monitored.
“It’s not just about privacy, it’s about freedom of speech,” Herold said, “Declaring open season on conversations just because they take place in public or communal space will have a chilling effect.”
And Tien noted that the surveillance could disproportionately affect low-income groups, “because of the demographics of public transit ridership, especially on city buses.”