Maryland transportation chief halts audio surveillance plans

Published 21 July 2009

Maryland Transportation Administration considered using listening devices on its buses and trains for recording conversations of passengers and employees; acting director of the agency suspends plan

Maryland’s acting transportation chief, citing concerns about privacy, has pulled back an internal proposal to use listening devices on its buses and trains for recording conversations of passengers and employees. The Maryland Transit Administration had been considering adopting a system that would allow it to conduct audio surveillance similar to that in several other large American cities.

Baltimore Sun’s Michael Dresser writes that the idea was first reported late last week by the Maryland Politics Watch blog, which reported that the MTA’s top official had requested an opinion from the Attorney General’s Office on the legality of such surveillance. After inquiries from The Sun Monday, acting secretary Beverly Swaim-Staley ordered the request withdrawn.  “It certainly should have been vetted at the department level and it was not,” she said. “We have not weighed the issues we should weigh before making a decision like this.”

Swaim-Staley said she would review whether the state would move forward with such a program. “Any privacy matters are of the ultimate importance,” said Swaim-Staley. “They’re the ultimate test of people’s trust in government.”

The request to the attorney general had sought legal guidance on whether using such equipment would violate Maryland’s anti-wiretapping law.

In a 10 July letter, MTA administrator Paul Wiedefeld noted that the MTA already uses video cameras for security aboard its vehicles. “As part of MTA’s ongoing efforts to deter criminal activity and mitigate other dangerous situations on board its vehicles, Agency management has considered adding audio recording equipment to the video recording technology now in use throughout its fleet,” Wiedefeld wrote.

According to the administrator, the MTA staff decided the idea raised legal issues and sent a letter seeking an opinion from the attorney general on whether such electronic eavesdropping would be legal and, if so, under which circumstances.

The MTA asked the attorney general to clarify whether the Maryland’s Wiretapping and Electronic Surveillance Act would require the MTA to obtain the consent of passengers before recording their conversations. If consent is required, the MTA asked whether posting a sign informing riders they were under audio surveillance would be sufficient notice.

Swaim-Staley, who is filling the vacancy left when John Porcari resigned to join the Obama administration, said the legal question was posed prematurely, before the issue could be reviewed from a policy perspective.

The acting secretary said she had not seen the letter as of last evening. “I have not even had the time to sit down and discuss it with Paul,”