A couple of months ago, I received an e-mail from an employee at the Maryland Transit Administration (MTA) who was wondering about the legality of recording conversations on MTA buses using onboard surveillance equipment. He said his agency was considering recording audio on buses to enhance safety and security.
I wasn't sure about the legality of this practice, so I told him I'd check around and get back to him. Figuring that the manufacturers of video surveillance equipment for the transit industry would have some practical knowledge in this area, I sent an e-mail to the marketing director of one of these companies. In turn, he forwarded my request to his sales staff and asked them to respond directly to me. Never heard back from them.
My next step was to post a note in the American Public Transportation Association's members-only online forum. Specifically, I posted my request in the Safety and Security category with the subject line: "Do any agencies record audio aboard buses?" I guess the answer is no, because no one responded.
Anyway, I have to admit that I didn't expend a whole lot of energy trying to track down the requested information, but I was disappointed that I couldn't help out my acquaintance at MTA.
Then, today, I discovered that the MTA has scuttled any plans to augment its video surveillance with audio recording. An interesting article at Journalism.org explains how it happened. It seems that bloggers and a Baltimore Sun newspaper reporter helped to bring about the final resolution. The action that triggered initial public interest is explained in the article:
As a first step, the [MTA] wrote the state Attorney General’s office asking for a legal opinion about the idea. The Attorney General’s office posted the MTA request on its website. In time, an enterprising blogger saw it and set off a chain of events that led the transit agency to suddenly drop the whole thing.
The Sun reporter, Michael Dresser, deserves the most credit because he actually took the time to pick up the phone and ask for a comment from the Maryland Department of Transportation.
As the article explains, Dresser called the department's acting director, Beverly Swaim-Staley, who was not aware that audio recording was under consideration. Upon learning about it, she scuttled the plan.
UPDATE: I just received an e-mail from my contact at MTA. He says the audio recording plan is not dead. Stay tuned.