The Government is Using Microphones to Record Us

The Government is Using Microphones to Record Us in Baltimore buses

In the 1960’s, James Bond made planting a “bug” (or hidden microphones) and wiretapping exciting. Bond would sneak in a hotel room, seduce the woman, and place a tap on the phone all without spilling his martini. As consumers of action spy movies, we ate it up. But back in real life, where we are not in the movies, everyone was comfortable knowing that their own phones were safe from being tapped. Why? Well we had the Fourth Amendment to protect us from an illegal search such as a wiretap. But not anymore. City buses in Baltimore, MD have been outfitted with microphones and are wirelessly transmitting everything being said to the government. The government is using microphones to record us. Private conversations are no longer private.

Recently, The Washington Post wrote an article about how the Maryland Transit Administration (MTA) has been using these clandestine audio recording devices since 2012. Now, nearly 500 out of their 750 buses are equipped with these audio recorders. Baltimore officials claim the microphones and transmitters are intended to be used to pick up on driver errors, altercations, or attacks on the buses. But are these reasons really worth a forfeiture of our Fourth Amendment rights? Further, it’s important to note that even though buses are in public, there is still an expectation of privacy for a conversation between people riding the bus.

Does the Senate Approve?

Senator Robert Zirkin (D-Baltimore County) seems to be opposed to the recording devices. “What [the MTA] is doing is a mass surveillance. I find it outrageous, “ Zirkin said. “I don’t want to overstate it, but this is the issue of our generation. As technology advances, it becomes easier and easier to encroach on people’s civil liberties.” In light of this, Zirkin, and others, have voted for a measure aimed at questioning whether or not these bus microphones are truly a good thing for the public. It is yet to be seen, however, whether their attempts to forestall the audio recording will be successful.

Baltimore, however, is not the city with public transportation that’s violating riders’ civil liberties and privacy rights. Buses in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston, and other cities around the country have also been fitted with devices intended to record activities or conversations.

Private Citizens Wiretapping

With big government throwing our rights to the wind, it begs the question, “what would happen if a private citizen tried the same thing by setting up a hidden microphone to record a conversation?’ Simply put, he’d likely go to prison. Remember Anthony Pellicano? He was a high-profile LA private investigator convicted in 2008 for wiretapping celebrities. Pellicano was sentenced to 15 years and fined $2,000,000. How about Christopher Chaney? In 2012, he was also convicted of wiretapping celebrities. The list of civilians convicted goes on, while the government seems to continue these actions with impunity. It should be noted that this is typically the case of audio recording. Video recording, like recording the police, is a whole other topic.

While Sen. Zirkin and others try to fight the use of government clandestine recording devices, we, as citizens, need to become acutely aware that issues such as this have the potential to become much more prevalent. The first video cameras were large and heavy, now they can be hidden in the bill of a baseball cap. Microphones and digital audio recorders can be as small as a hair and hidden almost anywhere. Even our own smartphone microphones can be turned on by the government and used for eavesdropping. As citizens, it’s crucial we pay attention to not only the direction that the technology evolves, but to how our own government may be violating our privacy rights and civil liberties.