Bill seeks to block MTA from recording passengers' conversations

Senators say policy is 'exploiting' poor people who lack transportation options

January 18, 2013|By Candy Thomson, The Baltimore Sun

A bill to ban the Maryland Transit Administration's practice of recording conversations on its buses has been filed by two state senators.

James Brochin, a Baltimore County Democrat, and Allan Kittleman, a Republican representing Howard and Carroll counties, want the MTA to stop installing microphones and deactivate units in use by Oct. 1.

"I have spoken to the MTA, and I have a philosophical difference with them," said Brochin. "What I discuss on the bus is nobody's business but my own."

Agency spokesman Terry Owens said the recordings give police additional assistance to investigate incidents and are not being used for surveillance.

But Brochin said the transit agency "is exploiting poor people who don't have the economic means to have a car."

He said the signs that warn people that they are being recorded don't give riders any choice in giving their consent, which is required under state law.

"Those signs say, 'You step onto this bus, we're going to tape you. You don't like it? Walk,' " Brochin said. "If this is such a good idea, why don't they have it on the MARC trains they run? I think if they did, it would be a much bigger outcry."

The MTA began activating audio equipment on its buses and posting warning signs in October. Officials expect to expand that to 340 buses, about half the fleet, by summer. Microphones are incorporated in the six-camera video surveillance system that has been in place on each bus for years.

MTA officials said they sought clearance from the state attorney general's office before beginning the program.

"As we said when we introduced the policy, our top priority is the safety of our passengers, our employees and the transit systems we operate," Owens said. "No one is monitoring the conversations of passengers. The audio and video are only reviewed if a crime occurs. Unless there is an incident that requires review, the tapes are recorded over every 30 days."

MTA officials note that police dispatchers receive 45 to 100 daily calls for assistance from bus drivers for everything from customer complaints to criminal activity. Video helps officers sort out the details of an incident and audio can fill in some of the blanks, they said.

Surveillance policies in the region vary widely. The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority uses security cameras on its buses but draws the line at audio recordings of passengers. Baltimore's three-year-old Circulator buses and Montgomery County's 335-bus Ride On system record both video and audio.

Owens said agency officials are reviewing the bill language and "will give it serious and thorough consideration."

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