The use of the equipment raises serious questions about eavesdropping without a warrant, particularly since recordings of passengers could be obtained and used by law enforcement agencies.
Government officials are quietly installing sophisticated audio surveillance systems on public buses across the country to eavesdrop on passengers, according to documents obtained by The Daily. Plans to implement the technology are under way in cities from San Francisco to Hartford, Conn., and Eugene, Ore., to Columbus, Ohio.
Linked to video cameras already in wide use, the microphones will offer a formidable new tool for security and law enforcement. With the new systems, experts say, transit officials can effectively send an invisible police officer to transcribe the individual conversations of every passenger riding on a public bus.
But the deployment of the technology on buses raises urgent questions about the boundaries of legally protected privacy in public spaces, experts say, as transit officials — and perhaps law enforcement agencies given access to the systems — seem positioned to monitor audio communications without search warrants or court supervision.
The systems are being installed in San Francisco, Baltimore, and other cities with funding from the Department of Homeland Security in some cases, according to the Daily, which obtained copies of contracts, procurement requests, specs and other documents.
Transit officials say the systems will help improve the safety of passengers and drivers and resolve complaints from riders. But privacy and security expert Ashkan Soltani told the Daily that the audio could easily be coupled with facial recognition systems or audio recognition technology to identify passengers caught on the recordings.
In 2009, transit officials in Baltimore, Maryland, backed down briefly from plans to install microphones in buses in that city after civil liberties groups complained that the systems would violate wiretapping laws and constitutional protections against illegal search and seizure. Transit authorities then asked the state’s attorney general to weigh-in on whether the systems violated wiretapping laws. After the attorney general indicated that signs warning passengers of the surveillance would help combat any legal challenges, transit officials pressed forward with their plans last month and announced the installation of an audio recording system on 10 public buses. The city plans to roll out the system on at least 340 additional buses.