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Big Ears

Recording Bus Conversations In Baltimore

By James Donahue

OK, now it is clear that we are carrying this anti-terrorism campaign too far. The City of Baltimore has begun installing open mics with new surveillance equipment in public transit buses to allow big brother to listen in on private conversations among the passengers.

The equipment was turned on in the first 10 buses in October, and plans are underway to have it installed in 340 buses, or about half the fleet, by next summer.

Ralign Wells, chief of the Maryland Transit Administration, told the Baltimore Sun that "we want to make sure people feel safe, and this builds up our arsenal of tools to keep our patrons safe."

The buses containing the audio equipment post signs that alert passengers that every word they say is being recorded. City officials say the equipment will assist in investigating crimes, accidents and poor customer service."

Is this going to be a new trend? Will open listening devices soon be installed in all of the nation’s buses, trains and aircraft, recording every spoken word? What about other public places like restaurants, theaters and shopping malls? It is bad enough that surveillance cameras are mounted in all of these places, making video recordings of every move we make. Now someone will be recording every spoken word.

Not only is this an invasion of our civil rights of privacy and freedom of expression, it moves us all that much closer to an Orwellian "Big Brother" scenario where we are forced to live within the strict rules of a controlled society or risk being arrested for extreme acts against the state.

What I found even more alarming was that when I pointed out this story to a friend the reaction was: "I think it is a good idea. I would feel safer riding on a bus if I knew somebody wasn’t going to blow it up."

Indeed. When was the last time a bus in the United States was successfully bombed and its passengers killed? And even if such an attack was planned, does anyone believe that the perpetrators would talk about it openly in the bus prior to the explosion? Does anybody believe the bombers would even be riding on the targeted bus?

Another question . . . if open microphones are recording all of the conversations in all of the buses running in Baltimore at the same time, during every hour that the buses are operating, who in hell is listening to all of that jabbering? Most people riding on public transit systems are strangers to one-another and consequently have little to say during the ride. If there is conversation it may involve a comment about the weather, the previous night’s football game, or the typical kind of "small-talk" that people use in public situations. We doubt if two suspicious characters will ever be heard secretly plotting an evil deed while sitting together on a bus.

Another thought about making recordings of public mutterings during the operation of a public transit bus . . . those who ride these vehicles know that there is a lot of general noise. The bus engine is usually diesel and consequently is loud. There is a constant starting and stopping, and opening and closing of doors and people getting on and off. People cough and sneeze. Are public microphones sophisticated enough to pick out individual conversations and determine exactly what is being said or who said it in the midst of all that background noise?

We have often wondered who is watching the video footage of all the surveillance cameras mounted on public streets, stores, malls, service stations, airports and subway stations. Now with listening devices in operation, we have to wonder who will have the patience to sift through all of the nonsensical verbiage flowing from the mouths of the masses.

We suspect it all goes into a recording somewhere for use at a later time if police or government agents are investigating a criminal act. It would be something like the mythical black box mounted in our cars and commercial aircraft.

It is true that sophisticated listening devices exist that now scan all of the telephone conversations, e-mails, fax messages and other electronic communications. They search for key red flag words that direct closer examination of the message. Perhaps this kind of technology would work on recorded bus jabbering.

We would be surprised if all of the money spent installing, recording and scanning the noise ever produces anything of value to the police or government intelligence agencies. When people know they are being recorded, they tend to remain more silent than usual.

But the scary Big Brother effect will certainly be clearly felt.

Nov. 15, 2012