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Technology & Innovation

Public Buses Now Adding Audio Surveillance

Transit systems in several cities, including San Francisco and Baltimore, are installing microphones that can pick up on conversations, which can then be stored in an onboard data storage unit.

What’s the Latest Development?

The next time you’re on a public bus, you might want to watch what you say: Transit systems in several cities are quietly installing or in the process of installing surveillance systems that can record both audio and video. The data can be monitored in real-time via a remote server, and it can be stored in an onboard “black box” for later access. San Francisco has approved a contract to install the system on almost 360 public vehicles, with an option to expand it to an additional 600. After receiving confirmation from Maryland’s attorney general’s office that adding a displayed warning was enough, Baltimore announced its plans to install a system on its buses.

What’s the Big Idea?

While video cameras have been on buses for years, the addition of microphones makes privacy advocates especially nervous. Washington University professor Neil Richards says that with combined audio/video surveillance, “you have a policeman in every seat with a photographic memory who can spit back everything that was said.” Security consultant Ashkan Soltani says that it would be very easy to identify passengers using facial and auditory recognition systems. Meanwhile, Ozark Regional Transit director Joel Gardner says it helps resolve customer complaints: “From my standpoint, the use of audio is a lifesaver for the drivers.”

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