Cities across America are equipping their public transport systems with audio recording devices, potentially storing every word spoken by passengers onboard. Rights activists say the surveillance plan by far exceeds what is necessary for security.
The multimillion dollar upgrade is underway in several US cities, including San Francisco, Eugene, Traverse City, Columbus, Baltimore, Hartford and Athens, reports The Daily, which obtained documents detailing the purchases.
The money partially comes from the federal government. San Francisco, for example, has approved a $5.9 million contract to install the eavesdropping systems on 357 modern buses and historic trolley cars over the next four years, with the Department Homeland Security footing the entire bill. The interception of audio communication will apparently be conducted without search warrants or court supervision, the report says.
The systems would be able to record audio and video from several locations in a bus for simultaneous playback. In Eugene transit officials explicitly demanded microphones capable of distilling clear conversation from the background noise. The recordings would generally be retained for 30 days. One of the systems produced for transport monitoring supports up to 12 high definition cameras, each with a dedicated microphone.
The system may potentially have additional capabilities added like timing the recording with GPS data from an onboard navigator, using facial recognition technology to identify people recorded or connecting wirelessly to a central post for real-time monitoring.
“This technology is sadly indicative of a trend in increased surveillance by commercial and law enforcement entities, under the guise of improved safety,” Ashkan Soltani, an independent security consultant whom the online newspaper asked to review specifications of equipment marketed for transit agencies, told The Daily.
Transport authorities gave various explanations for beefing up surveillance. A San Francisco contractor says the system will “increase passenger safety and improve reliability and maintainability of the system”. An Arkansas transit agency official said it is needed to deflect false complaints from passengers, describing it as “a lifesaver for the drivers”. Maryland officials openly called it a tool for law enforcement.
In some cases the systems are being installed despite resistance of civil liberties activists and lawmakers. In Maryland a legislative committee rejected a bill that would allow the local transport agency to proceed with its plan over concerns that it would violate wiretapping laws. The state’s attorney general advised the transportation agency to use signs warning passengers of the surveillance to help the system withstand a court challenge.
Privacy law experts say audio surveillance systems on buses pushes the boundaries of what is necessary to protect the law.
“It’s one thing to post cops, it’s quite another to say we will have police officers in every seat next to you, listening to everything you say,” said Neil Richards, a professor at Washington University School of Law.
With the microphones, he said, “you have a policeman in every seat with a photographic memory who can spit back everything that was said.”
Public transport is not the only place where citizens are worried about being constantly monitored by keen-eared recording devices. Similar systems combining audio and video recording with wireless connectivity are being installed in lampposts across the US.
- Big Brother’s Listening (thedaily.com)
- Baltimore bus passengers now subject to secretive eavesdropping (rt.com)
On June 6th, 2010, peace activists including members of Bay Area Women in Black and Jewish Voice for Peace held a silent vigil outside the main entrance to the San Francisco Jewish Community Federation’s annual “Israel in the Gardens” celebration. The peace activists called for an end to Israel’s occupation of Palestinian Territories and an end to the siege on Gaza. Their silent, dignified march was greeted by members of StandWithUs/SF Voice for Israel and other affiliates who called them “kapos” (concentration camp prisoners who carried out Nazi orders on other prisoners) and suggested that Israel should “sink the next flotilla with you on it.” One man made repeated explicit threats against the peace activists and their families and used a camera to take pictures. No one from StandWithUs/SF Voice for Israel intervened. Rather, they kept up their vicious and abusive chants which included, according to multiple witnesses:
“Nazi, Nazi, Nazi!” – this done as a group chant
“You’re all being identified, every last one of you…we will find out where you live. We’re going to make your lives difficult..we will disrupt your families…”, all on above video.
“Sink the flotilla—and you on it!”
“Terrorists, terrorists, terrorists.”
One man yelled (to someone who may have looked heat exhausted) “I hope you stroke out, old man!”
“Ugly bitches” said to older women.
“You’re not a Jew! you gave up your Jewishness!”
“Witches in black! Bitches in black!” (hard to tell which one it was, or whether they alternated the chant)
“Bin Laden loves you! you support terrorism!”
“Is there a coroner in the house? Women in Black are dead!”
“Is there a doctor in the house? Women in Black are sick!”
“End the occupation of our sidewalk.”
“Remember 9/11, they were dancing in the streets.”
“Sharmuta!” this was chanted for a while (means “slut” or “whore” in Arabic and which was particularly shocking for Arabic speakers to hear)
“Anti-women, anti-gay, why support Hamas today!”
They were also lesbian-baiting, even though they were chanting “Anti-women, anti-gay, why support Hamas today?” One guy yelled “lesbian” at me and my friend (correctly assessing our sexual identity) and maybe the same guy yelled at someone else, “When’s the last time you dated a man?”
One guy kept saying “you’re looking at real people now (meaning Stand with Israel folks); you are not people.”
Signs said: “JVP, Proud to be ashamed to be Jewish.”
and “Don’t fuck with the Jews”.
An 88-year-old woman reported being told, “You’re halfway in your grave already’.
“Jihad!” chanted repeatedly at Muslim peace activists.
They also had signs that read, “JVP cons the world”, etc.
One woman waved the end of the large stick of her Israeli flag in a very threatening manner, as if to hit one of us (it happened to me several times as i walked by her), directed especially to those of us who carried signs identifying ourselves as Jews.
At an earlier demonstration last week at the consulate, there was a huge sign on the Stand with Us side (which Stand with Us later condemned). On one side it said “Until Gaza is destroyed, the job is not complete.” On the other, it said “God is great. It’s Islam that sucks.”
Over the years, members of Bay Area Women in Black chapters (a group started in Israel to protest the occupation), many of them older women including physically tiny Jewish grandmothers, have reported equally terrible encounters with StandWithUs/SF Voices with Israel- they’ve been called 4-letter words, had cameras violently thrust in their faces. At least one person had her home chalked.
That’s why threats on people’s families that you can hear in the video are being taken seriously. A few weeks ago, liberal rabbi Michael Lerner, a resident of Berkeley across the bay from San Francisco, awoke to discover he was the target of a hate crime: his house had been surrounded with threatening posters permanently affixed with glue.
StandWithUs/SF Voices with Israel hosted a booth at Israel in the Gardens and is an approved charity at the San Francisco Federation’s Jewish Community Endowment Fund, unlike Jewish Voice for Peace and other peace groups which were banned from the Federation’s acceptable charity list.
Are StandWithUs/SF Voices with Israel values the values the Federation promotes?