City buses across America now covertly recording passengers' conversations

City buses across America increasingly have hidden microphones that track and record the conversations that take place on them. It's easy to see the reasoning behind this: once it's acceptable to video-record everything and everyone on a bus because some crime, somewhere was thus thwarted, then why not add audio? If all you need to justify an intrusion into privacy is to show that some bad thing, somewhere, can be so prevented, then why not? After all, "If you've got nothing to hide..."

According to the product pamphlet for the RoadRecorder 7000 system made by SafetyVision (.pdf), “Remote connectivity to the RoadRecorder 7000 NVR can be established via the Gigabit Ethernet port or the built-in 3G modem. A robust software ecosystem including LiveTrax vehicle tracking and video streaming service combined with SafetyNet central management system allows authorized users to check health status, create custom alerts, track vehicles, automate event downloads and much more.”

The systems use cables or WiFi to pair audio conversations with camera images in order to produce synchronous recordings. Audio and video can be monitored in real-time, but are also stored onboard in blackbox-like devices, generally for 30 days, for later retrieval. Four to six cameras with mics are generally installed throughout a bus, including one near the driver and one on the exterior of the bus.

Cities that have installed the systems or have taken steps to procure them include San Francisco, California; Eugene, Oregon; Traverse City, Michigan; Columbus, Ohio; Baltimore Maryland; Hartford, Connecticut; and Athens, Georgia.

There are lots more exciting possibilities opened up here. For example, our phones and laptops could continuously stream all the audio from our immediate surroundings when we're in public, even when we're not actively using them. No one would listen to them in real-time (or, at least, no one would be authorized to do this), unless they were a cop or someone in government. But when a crime was committed, imagine how useful it would be if all the phones in the vicinity could be tapped for a record of the event!

Why not? If you've got nothing to hide?

This is the NSA's argument, by the way. They're recording all of the Internet and voice traffic in the USA, but they only plan on examining it after the fact, to find criminals who do bad, bad things. Once you accept that logic, there's no reason that they shouldn't put prisoner-tracking ankle-cuffs on all of us (mobile phones are only slightly less invasive than these, anyway, in the current legislative regime), start using lawful interception backdoors to watch us through the webcams in our consoles and computers, and so on.

It's also UK Home Secretary Theresa May's argument in favour of her "Snooper's Charter" -- the communications act she's pushing, which will give law enforcement the power to order service providers to retain any data, and give government and law enforcement access to it.

Public Buses Across Country Quietly Adding Microphones to Record Passenger Conversations [Kim Zetter/Wired] (via Wil Wheaton)


      1. The message IS getting across, it’s just that some people think that 1984 is a really good blueprint for the future.

      1.  All that means is that MBTA buses will have to put up a sign saying that everyone is subject to being video- and audio-recorded. Won’t stop them from doing it.

  1. Cory, I think your analogies actually harm your argument here.   By intentionally blending the lines and implying passive monitoring of public areas with active and intrusive personal life surveillance, I think you’re damaging the credibility in your argument.  If nothing else, you do come across as a bit paranoid there too.
    And while I do disagree with the need to do this – not only do I think it is fairly useless, but also as funds that could be put to better and more significant public projects – I am curious as to how much of these passive monitoring/recordings are actually being analyzed or used in any way.  Maybe my reading of this is on the wrong track, but it seems like they’re capturing a lot of junk and it is not even worthwhile to wade through it (which cycles back to questions as to why they do it to begin with).
    Lastly, I think there is a legitimate/positive use that you actively ignore.  As a hypothetical, imagine the usefulness of having eyes and ears in a hostage situation in real time.  So, if this system contributed to saving the lives of a dozen people but also had been installed and recording you a year prior, would your opinion be the same? 

    1. Yes. Liberty is worth more than hypothetical lives in a non existent hostage situation involving public transportation. Life is not Taking of Pelham, we’re talking about surveillance on motherfucking buses. 

      1.  My only gripe with your supposition is that you mentioned “Taking of Pelham 123”, possibly the stupidest movie I’ve seen since that one where the dino-shark leaps from the ocean to eat an airplane.  Other than that, you’re good.
        Carry on.

          1.  That was a great movie, with a great cast. The Wikipedia article has a fun bit of trivia: the NYC Transit Authority instituted an informal policy of never letting a train leave the Pelham station at 1:23 after the movie came out.

      2.  We have regular incidents on the Seattle bus system, and I would suspect you don’t take buses when you make that statement. It’s not “hostages.” It’s the routine stuff that happens in public transportation, which touches all walks of life and mental states. Subways are easier to monitor and patrol because they have stations and specific entrance points.

        Drivers in the Seattle area are routinely threatened or attacked, as are other passengers.

        1. Yup. We also have cameras to match. People get assaulted on the bus, and the footage/audio isn’t used for any other purposes.

    2. As a far, far, more likely hypothetical – imagine the usefulness of being able to scan back through the last six months’ worth of casual conversations held by a political dissident whose liberty your employers have deemed inconvenient.

      With suitable curation, I’m sure most of us would have held enough conversations to clearly support our involvement in any number of sinister and outlandish plots.  Sure, the charges might not stick in the end, but by then they and their whole social network and extended family would be financially devastated, they’d have spent the past year in and out of the slammer, their political work would be utterly disrupted, and their reputation would be forever tarnished.

      Think that sounds paranoid?  Look into the last few years of Byron Sonne’s life.

    3. The problem with your hypothetical is that you’re approaching this as if government abuse of surveilance powers is also a hypothetical that hasn’t actually occurred. I can find a lot more of those incidents than I can find hostage situations on buses where the occupants were all saved due to covert surveilance.

  2. I’m always told freedom comes with a price.  I guess it does because only people of modest means ride the bus and I’m not hearing about microphones being required in limousines.

  3. Why the hell is OUR tax dollars being taken away from schools and health care in favor of crap like this.
    This whole DHS thing is going too far.

  4. Double-edged swords. One side could be dulled through proper disclosure, informed consent, and other elements.

    In Seattle and environs, I totally support audio and video recording on buses. We have constant incidents on buses in which people are injured or drivers attacked. We’re not a dangerous city, so I expect in other places, it’s worse. In order to both provide safety for patrons and to protect those accused of disruption or crimes, and to ensure those that are bad actors get banned from buses, surveillance seems a perfectly reasonable price for improving public safety.

    But I also agree that passengers should be fully aware of the fact that everything they say and do is recorded (which is true in other public transportation, like subways and light rail, at least in stations and sometimes on trains), and have ready ability to know how long material is retained, the way in which privacy is assured, and the uses to which it will be put, so that public debate can occur about it, and the public agencies can be audited to ensure they regularly meet the privacy/use statements.

    I would think you would have more problems about the black boxes in automobiles which are installed without our knowledge and consent by car makers, which will soon be legislated in the U.S., and which cannot be easily disabled or disabled at all. In a private conveyance, I should have privacy, unless I want to maintain a record to which I have access and a court can compel only with justification to obtain.

    1. Department of Homeland Security is paying for these cameras. Last time I checked, DHS was not involved in the litigation of bus brawls. 

      1.  DHS gives grants to all kinds of levels of government, which then uses it for their own purposes, which can include “homeland security,” but often are barely related. That’s a big complaint of the DHS budget, in fact, is that a lot of the money goes to pork-barrel stuff.

    2. If the bad actors are able to be identified, you may be able to ban/fine/arrest them. However, the cameras and audio recordings will do little to actually protect passengers. This is supposed to be an after the fact kind of thing. So, if a bad person gets on a bus and decides to hurt someone, they will still be able to and unless they also present some sort of ID, they aren’t getting banned from anything.
      I just don’t see how audio would help in this situation. It seems video would be all you need.What are they hoping to hear on this audio? Seriously, I’m trying to imagine what wrongful activity could be recorded on audio but not on video.

  5. For example, our phones and laptops could continuously stream all the audio from our immediate surroundings when we’re in public, even when we’re not actively using them.

    Dammit, Lucius Fox was supposed to turn that thing off when he was done with it.

  6. I see my anti-social behavior is paying off for me finally.  Like I’d have the nerve to talk to someone on a bus.

  7. In reference to the “if you have nothing to hind…” argument: Whenever presented with it, I find honesty to be the best response. “If you have nothing to hide, I hope to God I’m never seated next to you at a dinner party. That sounds utterly boring, and I’m not sure we have the same definition of an interesting or successful life. Even my kids get the fact that a slavish devotion to rules isn’t necessarily a good thing, and they’re not even teens yet.”

  8. Do you really think if you’ve got anything that interesting to say somebody ain’t recording it already?  I mean I’m kidding, but not really.  Mostly I’m pretty unalarmed by this.  Bus video is nothing new, and I don’t know of any wholesale datamining big brother uses it has been put to so far.  I think this is far more likely (and useful)  to be used to document hazardous/illegal behavior by unruly passengers.  I frequent one of the systems mentioned (shoutout Athens Transit– thanks for being my ride!) If this provides documentation of instances like the one I witnessed (and reported) where a dude was trying to cajole/intimidate a mentally disabled passenger into giving him his bus pass, well, I’m ok with that. Oh, and to be clear, there’s very little bad behavior on Athens Transit– it’s mostly very friendly and it gets you where you’re going. I just wish it got more funding so they could run more buses more frequently.

    1. “there’s very little bad behavior on Athens Transit”
      And one incident is enough that millions of people get their privacy violated? One asshole tries to intimidate someone and therefore it’s ok that the rest of the nation gets punished?
      I’m no longer suprised why the USA is sliding so fast towards a police state – their citizens welcome it.

  9. Just one more thing I feel incensed about. Mind you I don’t drive. Can’t even. To have everything recorded. I mean sure the guy next to you could be but this goes above and beyond ‘what you do in public is public.’

      1. Well, my other thought was that since Micheal Moore lives in the area, that perhaps it was a conspiracy funded by Dick DeVos, et al, with the desired outcome being that Moore’s caught, while drunk on Right Brain beer and on a city bus, outing himself as a complete fraud.  ;-) 

  10. I ride the bus, on average, four days a week, and get to know the drivers pretty well. I don’t say much myself, but most bus drivers seem to be very chatty. I wonder what would have happened if one of the drivers I know had been recorded talking about her approval of same-sex marriage. She went on and on at length about how she didn’t want to marry a woman, but she didn’t understand why gender should be a factor in determining whether two people can marry.

    Obviously if she were fired for her opinions there would be potential for a lawsuit, but, even now, hers is not a popular opinion in this area. I’m sure there are supervisors who, if they heard her expressing her views, would find an excuse to fire her. 

  11. This is why I line my hat with tinfoil, and mumble everything I say just to avoid detection. Sometimes I even mumble random things as I walk down the street so as to confuse all the surveillance. It’s a good thing the internet is anonymous, as I don’t know what I would do otherwise!

    1. Wouldn’t the tinfoil just act to amplify and direct the rf signal? Besides esp, if it exists, isn’t detected on any known spectra. 

      Otherwise. Terrible when the obviously paranoid schitzophrenic with delusions of a government conspiricy to chain us all down and reprogram us by feeding  monsanto-brand goodies whether we want ’em or not comes off as halfway rational.

      Edit: Not sure if sarcastic or not. Apologies. Seriously we need a set of sarcasm tags in the html standard (Yes I;m aware you can fake it in html5 but I mean in the bare html itself.)

    1.  In all seriousness, as a now-and-then city bus rider, I think that there are people who do nothing but ride the bus all day and rant to anyone in earshot. 90% of the recordings could easily be of one person.

  12. This would have been great fun in the 70/80’s when you sometimes had four or five shoulder mounted boom boxes blasting away on some inner city buses, each playing a different tape or station. (At least in Los Angeles this was not at all uncommon. )

    I’d like to see someone get anything useful off *those* tapes along witr bus noise, traffic noise etc.

    1. Wouldn’t recording boomboxes like that be against copyright law? I can see the RIAA requesting payment from the DHS…

  13. It is only logical to attach explosive collars to everyone. If you are not a criminal, you have no reason to fear the law; and if you are, you’ll have a great incentive to turn yourself in.

    For the sake of the children, of course.

  14. What happens when we all have HUD-type glasses and we are recording everything for ourselves too? 1984 only works if it is a government monopoly. And no, anywhere there is a free-ish market and a semblance of democracy, it will be very difficult to ban. Money changes everything.

    1. It’ll just be made insanely expensive outside of hack-it-yourself kits. Then they’ll just have the cops smash your equipment and be forced to ‘apologize’ before going on a paid leave after the fact for harassment.

  15. Sometime around the 90s my entire gaming group took over the back half of a city bus and loudly discussed our plans for assassinating the head of the local city guard. I guess it was fortunate this was in D&D and involved abilities beyond mortal ken, as soon afterwards I began running modern spy campaigns more or less exclusively, and how would THOSE have sounded? 

  16. I bet the NSA is keeping naked girls in a pool waiting for them to suddently rise and shout “MURDER!”

  17. While I’m concerned about the privacy implications, who talks to anyone on the bus? I ride the thing every day. The only conversationalists are nutters.

    1. Normalization of surveillance as well as the principle of the thing really.

      Well that and our tax dollars should go to something like. Oh… actually making public transit a better alternative and or expand into more communities?

  18. I can easily imagine this technology being sold, but I can’t imagine it working.  Have you ever tried talking on a cell phone on a public bus?  You can’t make yourself heard or understood, and the mic is right there in your hand.  Hide the mic and you’ll get nothing but garble.

    Also, if the people on the bus knew juicy secrets, they would cash in and buy cars.

  19. Just looking for something to get upset and outraged about, are we? I mean come on! You’re in PUBLIC on PUBLIC transport and you expect to have a private conversation? Seriously??? Next you’re going to be complaining that the guy sitting right next to you has been listening to what you’ve been saying and that it’s an invasion of privacy. I have a suggestion, try going somewhere PRIVATE to have a private conversation. But then, what could you get upset and outraged about if you did that? So what’s the point right? This really is Generation Outrage.

    1. The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects..
      I argue that my conversation with the person sitting next to me is private in that my person is me… What I say, when intended for one other person only, is part of me and my effects.There is a big difference between public speaking and private conversation. Recording a private conversation is illegal in many states for a very good reason. Sure, easily overheard conversations are fair game, but private ones are still protected by our laws (in rational states at least).

  20. The only possible use for these surveillance systems would be to turn America into a full-on jail-state or provide footage for the most absurd reality TV program you could imagine.

  21. “If you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear” is my most hated meme.  We need another meme to kill it, because arguing intelligently against it sure hasn’t worked.

  22. Why not audio-record? If there’s video about, what’s the problem? Imagine a CCTV operator watching a camera feed trained on a couple of people who are acting suspiciously and can be seen to be talking to each other but you can’t hear the audio because there’s no microphone feed. They could be conspiring to commit a crime–if it starts looking like they’re innocent, no problem. But if they are up to something… Audio and video evidence of crime is valuable.

    1. The whole point is that ‘acting suspiciously’ should not be enough of a good reason to pry. We call ordinary people who do that ‘busybodies’ or ‘nosy’, neither of which are particularly positive terms.

      Acting to surveil people’s conversations if something about them looks ‘suspicious’, when they are riding public transit— going from one place to another, NOT focused on or hanging around a specific location— presumes guilt by default, rather than innocence.
      This is the primary problem of many ‘total surveillance’ programs— they assume that you are guilty until proven innocent, something that runs counter to the basic principles of the US’s legal system (and many other countries’ as well.)

      1. “The whole point is that ‘acting suspiciously’ should not be enough of a good reason to pry.”

        Bus footage, as far as I understand it, is only utilized after an incident has occurred during transit. Are you aware of any further “prying”?

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