The Maryland Transit Administration recently began audio surveillance on some of its buses, but two state senators have introduced a bill to make the practice illegal.
All 758 MTA buses, which serve the Baltimore-Washington metropolitan areas, are equipped with multi-camera video surveillance systems, and about 330 buses have cameras that can record audio as well, according to the Department of Legislative Services.
In October, the MTA decided to turn on the audio systems on some of the buses to help investigate potential criminal acts on the vehicles as well as to help resolve disputes between customers and bus drivers, said MTA spokesman Terry Owens.
Signs posted in each bus indicate that the recording equipment is being used, and audio notifications are made periodically, Owens said.
But Sens. James Brochin (D-Dist. 42) of Towson and Allan H. Kittleman (R-Dist. 9) of West Friendship want the practice to end.
While the posted signs on buses allowed the MTA to circumvent the state’s two-party consent rule for audio recording, “it was the [Judicial Proceedings] Committee’s decision that the conversation you have with your friend or your loved one or whoever is a private matter,” Brochin said on the Senate floor Feb. 19.
“It’s your personal conversation and you have the right to privacy,” he said.
The committee voted 8-3 in favor of the bill.
Brochin told The Gazette on Thursday that the issue came to his attention via a news report last year. He was surprised how easily people would cast off their right to privacy for the sake of feeling more secure, he said.
The recordings are kept on an electronic device on each bus, and are only accessed if an incident needs to be reviewed, Owens said. If not accessed, the recordings are erased every 30 days, he said.
Owens was not aware of the recordings being used in any major investigation thus far, and there are no immediate plans to extend the recording to MTA’s Metro or light-rail systems, he said.
But Sen. Verna Jones-Rodwell (D-Dist. 44) of Baltimore said she hopes to broker a compromise that would give drivers the discretion to turn on the audio recording devices in the event of an incident or emergency.
“It’s really a public safety issue in Baltimore city,” Jones-Rodwell said.
The bill had earned the support of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, which argued that riders shouldn’t have to give up their right to privacy in order to use mass transit.
But the ACLU of Maryland is open to the compromise Jones-Rodwell suggested, as well as the idea of allowing a single camera positioned next to the driver — where a passenger would have no reasonable expectation of privacy — to record audio, said Sarah Love, the group’s public policy director.
MTA officials defended the practice earlier this month.
“This is not a device that would be monitored all the time,” Capt. Burna McCollum of the MTA police told a Senate committee Feb. 7. “However, in our ability to investigate, we expect the utilization of this equipment to be able to enhance our ability to investigate criminal, civil and internal complaints.”