The Maryland Transit Administration said it has begun recording conversations between bus drivers and passengers as a security measure that critics are calling a privacy invasion.
The Baltimore Sun reported in its Thursday edition that audio recording began on 10 buses in Baltimore this week, supplementing video cameras that have been in place for years. Signs tell riders they are being recorded.
MTA Administrator Ralign Wells said the agency expects to expand audio recording to 340 buses, about half the fleet, by next summer.
“We want to make sure people feel safe, and this builds up our arsenal of tools,” Wells said. “The audio completes the information package for investigators and responders.”
MTA runs 73 local bus routes in the Baltimore-Washington area and contracts with private companies for commuter service to outlying communities.
Wells said audio recording was approved by the state attorney general's office. A spokesman there confirmed that transit officials have been advised that audio recording doesn't violate the state wiretapping law.
But an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer said he was “flabbergasted” that MTA officials were implementing the program after a similar proposal was rejected in 2009 by the acting transportation secretary and by the General Assembly in each of the last three legislative sessions.
“A significant number of people have no viable alternative to riding a bus, and they should not be forced to give up their privacy rights,” said David Rocah, a staff attorney with the ACLU's Maryland chapter
Bus surveillance policies vary within the region. The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority and Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority use security cameras on their buses but don't allow audio recording of passengers. Montgomery County is about to add audio to its video capability. Baltimore's Circulator buses record both video and audio.
State Sen. Jamie Raskin, D-Montgomery, a constitutional law expert, said that while he understands the need to protect bus riders, “this sounds kind of Big Brotherish to me.” He said bus patrons should have been consulted, and a clear policy should have been developed, spelling out who has access to the recordings and how long they are kept.