Agency to Continue Turning Microphones Off in Buses, Trains

By Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 22, 2009

When the wheels are rolling on the Maryland Transit Administration's trains and buses, so are the surveillance cameras trained on everyone inside, but microphones that could pick up casual conversation won't be switched on anytime soon.

The state's acting transportation secretary, Beverley K. Swaim-Staley, on Monday quickly rebuffed a query that had been sent to the state attorney general, asking whether it was legal to listen in on bus and train conversations.

"The secretary believes that matters of public privacy are the ultimate test of people's trust in government," said her spokesman, Jack Cahalan. "We have tabled the matter."

Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler routinely posts letters of inquiry on his Web site, and that's how the one from the MTA became public.

"Can MTA lawfully make audio recordings of conversations of passengers and employees on board public transit vehicles?" wrote MTA Administrator Paul J. Wiedefeld. And, is it necessary "to obtain the consent of passengers and employees before recording their conversations?"

His letter was promptly withdrawn once Swaim-Staley got wind of it.

The matter might be more innocent than meets the eye. It's another technological intersection between what can be done and what is socially acceptable to do.

MTA operates buses, subways and commuter rail lines throughout the state, focusing heavily on Baltimore, but its MARC rail lines and commuter buses into Washington carry more than 10 million passengers a year.

All of MTA's buses and rail cars arrive from the manufacturer equipped with cameras that can record video and audio, said Jawauna Greene, an MTA spokeswoman. And the video cameras are on when a bus is in operation. "Some of our buses have as many as 10 cameras," she said. "Some are in the front section of the bus, some are in the rear and some are outside. The inside ones all have audio capability, but we've never turned that on."

Greene said the letter to Gansler came about when the MTA investigators who handle crimes and injury claims asked whether it would violate Maryland's wiretapping law to flip on the audio equipment.

"They said, 'The visual can tell you one thing, but the audio can reveal a whole new set of circumstances about an incident,' " Greene said. "They wanted to know the limits on our use of our equipment."

Greene said no one reviews the transit videos unless there is an incident, and they record over old videos.

Metro has some buses and trains that are equipped with cameras, and camera surveillance is routine inside and outside Metro stations. Virginia Railway Express, which hauls passengers between Fredericksburg and Union Station, has cameras in the engineer's area of each train and on station platforms but not in passenger compartments.

The use of cameras is now routine on many of the country's transit lines, and a number of cities have inaugurated audio recording as well, causing some consternation. In Grand Forks, N.D., riders threatened to sue because there were no signs indicating that they were being recorded. In Broward County, Fla., a passenger who was recorded singing "We're in the money!" after her bus crashed was confronted with her reaction when she sought damages for an alleged injury.

Staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.

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