ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Here's something to think about the next time you get on a bus or train - in many parts of the country, what you say during your ride may be recorded. New Jersey's public transit system is the latest to add audio and visual surveillance on some of its trains. Other agencies have been quietly recording passengers for years. And critics say that's an invasion of privacy, as NPR's Joel Rose reports.
JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Get on a New Jersey transit light rail train in Hoboken or Jersey City, and you might notice an inconspicuous sign that says video and audio systems in use. But if you're not looking for it, it's easy to miss.
MICHAEL DOLAN: Yeah, I don't like that.
ROSE: Michael Dolan was not happy when I pointed it out.
DOLAN: I don't want conversations being picked up because it's too Orwellian for me. It's just - it reeks of Big Brother. I don't know. I don't like it.
ROSE: A lot commuters told me they're OK with security cameras on the trains, but audio - to some people, that seems like crossing a line, including Neeley Banks.
NEELEY BANKS: Private conversations should be private between you and the individual that you're speaking to.
ROSE: What about the video?
BANKS: If it's security for us on this train, that wouldn't bother me.
ROSE: New Jersey Transit says this is about security and safety. The agency is installing audio and video recorders on its light rail trains around the state, but New Jersey Transit does not want to talk specifics. Here's acting Executive Director Dennis Martin fending off questions from reporters earlier this week.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
DENNIS MARTIN: We're using every available technology to deter criminal activity on our system.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: What do you do with the audio recordings? Do you give them to police?
MARTIN: Next topic.
ROSE: But some writers and civil liberties advocates think there's something about audio recording that's just creepy. Jeanne LoCicero is a lawyer with the ACLU of New Jersey.
JEANNE LOCICERO: It is creepy that they want to record our conversations. We all have a reasonable expectation that we can have private conversations in public, and this really is undermining that principle.
CHRISTOPHER HOLLAND: The idea that people are listening in - Big Brother, if you will - is very far from the truth.
ROSE: That's Capt. Christopher Holland with the Maryland Transit Administration police. The MTA has had audio and video recording on many of its buses in the Baltimore area since 2012.
HOLLAND: The common misperception is that everything's being listened to. It's not only impractical; it's impossible.
ROSE: Holland says the cameras and microphones are recording whenever the bus is running. Most of the time, he says, no one listens to the recordings, and they get erased after 30 days, unless there's an incident. Then, Holland says, the audio recordings can reveal things video doesn't, like names.
HOLLAND: It's a very useful tool.
ROSE: It's not clear how many other transit agencies are doing this, but the answer seems to be a lot. The cost of these surveillance systems can run into the millions of dollars, which is often covered by the Department of Homeland Security. Rodell Notbohm is the CEO of Apollo Video Technology, one of several companies that builds surveillance equipment for transit agencies. Notbohm says his company alone has supplied equipment for about 200 agencies, and all those systems have microphones.
RODELL NOTBOHM: Typically, it's not going to hear a conversation between two people that are sitting next to one another. The idea is to be able to capture the interaction between, you know, passengers and the operator and, then, any big altercation or noises that are going on in the vehicle.
ROSE: Like this incident in Cleveland, where the driver and a rider got in a fight when the rider refused to pay his fair.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: He's got a knife. He's got a knife.
ROSE: But it's hard to say how many transit systems are actually recording audio. Some only do it when the driver pushes a button. Others never do. Jeramie Scott with the Electronic Privacy Information Center says it's hard for passengers to know where they stand.
JERAMIE SCOTT: Often, there's a lack of policies and procedures that are available to the public so they understand what's going on, how the information's being used, you know, how it's being stored, how long it's being retained, who it's being shared with
ROSE: New Jersey Transit, for example, is unwilling to answer any of those basic questions, which may help explain why riders are so worried about what Big Brother might overhear. Joel Rose, NPR News, New York.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.