Government officials are quietly installing sophisticated audio surveillance systems on public buses across the country to eavesdrop on passengers, according to documents obtained by The Daily. Plans to implement the technology are under way in cities from San Francisco to Hartford, Conn., and Eugene, Ore., to Columbus, Ohio.
Linked to video cameras already in wide use, the microphones will offer a formidable new tool for security and law enforcement. With the new systems, experts say, transit officials can effectively send an invisible police officer to transcribe the individual conversations of every passenger riding on a public bus.
But the deployment of the technology on buses raises urgent questions about the boundaries of legally protected privacy in public spaces, experts say, as transit officials — and perhaps law enforcement agencies given access to the systems — seem positioned to monitor audio communications without search warrants or court supervision.
“This is very shocking,” said Anita Allen, a privacy law expert at the University of Pennsylvania. “It’s a little beyond what we’re accustomed to. The adding of the audio seems more sensitive.”
In San Francisco, for example, transit officials recently approved a $5.9 million contract to install a new audio-enabled surveillance system on 357 buses and trolley cars over four years, with an option for 613 more vehicles. The contract, signed in July, specifies both modern buses and historic trolley cars.