“The National Security Agency’s capability at any time could be turned around on the American people, and no American would have any privacy left, such is the capability to monitor everything: telephone conversations, telegrams, it doesn’t matter. There would be no place to hide. If a dictator takes over the United States, the NSA could enable it to impose total tyranny, and there would be no way to fight back.” –Senator Frank Church, 1975
The American surveillance state has been steadily increasing since the September 11th terrorist attacks, as the so-called War on Terror has been used to justify more and more invasive surveillance of not just foreign nationals but of American citizens. Often times this surveillance has been done by the government with the cooperation of corporate America – as was the case during the Bush Administration when the telecom corporations aided in the warrantless wiretapping of Americans.
Now, the invasiveness of the surveillance state is finding its way into public transportation. Video surveillance of public transportation has become commonplace, but now big brother will be able to listen to your conversations. The Daily reports that local governments across the country have been installing listening devices on public buses in order to eavesdrop on passengers.
The Daily obtained documentation of audio surveillance equipment either already being used or proposals for its use on public buses in six different cities across the country. Local law enforcement agencies are spending millions of dollars on these systems, and significant amounts of the funding is coming from the federal government including grants from the Department of Homeland Security.
Linked to video cameras already in wide use, the microphones will offer a formidable new tool for security and law enforcement. With the new systems, experts say, transit officials can effectively send an invisible police officer to transcribe the individual conversations of every passenger riding on a public bus.
But the deployment of the technology on buses raises urgent questions about the boundaries of legally protected privacy in public spaces, experts say, as transit officials — and perhaps law enforcement agencies given access to the systems — seem positioned to monitor audio communications without search warrants or court supervision.
“This is very shocking,” said Anita Allen, a privacy law expert at the University of Pennsylvania. “It’s a little beyond what we’re accustomed to. The adding of the audio seems more sensitive.”
In San Francisco, for example, transit officials recently approved a $5.9 million contract to install a new audio-enabled surveillance system on 357 buses and trolley cars over four years, with an option for 613 more vehicles. The contract, signed in July, specifies both modern buses and historic trolley cars.
A spokesman for the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, Paul Rose, declined to comment on the surveillance program. But procurement documents explain the agency’s rationale.
This is just the latest in ways in which the surveillance state has been expanding. According to reporting by Bloomberg, mannequins are now being developed with visual surveillance technology that will allow corporations to collect data on customers while they are shopping. Additionally that company that has been developing the mannequins has been testing audio surveillance technology that will be able to listen to customers conversations.
There is also a proposal to place event data recorders, like the black boxes used to record the cockpit communications of airline pilots, in private automobiles. ABC news reports that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is requesting that the black boxes be put in cars to collect data that include the speed of the vehicle, information about engine throttle, and whether seat belts were buckled.
As the surveillance state expands it is becoming increasingly difficult to protect your privacy, all the while much of the surveillance is being done in secret and without oversight. William Binney, a former National Security Agency employee, estimated the NSA has assembled 20 trillion “transactions” from American citizens. These include emails, phone calls, and other digital data. Perhaps we should considering renaming the Department of Homeland Security, the Ministry of Truth.