Friday, July 17, 2009

Maryland Transit Administration Wants to Record Our Conversations‏

By Paul Gordon.

Imagine you’re sitting on the MARC train, having a conversation with someone you’re close to – your husband, maybe, or a close friend. You’re hardly talking about classified material, but you still don’t want people listening in to your private conversation. So you keep your voices down. You look around to make sure you have some space around you and as much privacy as you could reasonably expect in a public area. It’s the sort of thing that happens every day.

Except this time, without your knowledge, someone is listening in. Someone from the government. Because the state is recording your conversation on the train.

Personally, I find the idea of the state recording people’s conversations on public transportation creepy, something I would expect from the old Soviet Union.

But that’s exactly the scenario that came to mind when I read the Maryland Transit Administration’s request for the opinion of the Attorney General. Last Friday, the MTA submitted a letter asking for an opinion of the Attorney General on the following questions:

1. Can MTA lawfully make audio recordings of the conversations of passengers and employees on board public transit vehicles operated by or under contract to the MTA?

2. Does the Maryland Wiretapping and Electronic Surveillance Act,§§10-401 through 10-403 of the Courts and Judicial Proceedings Article, Annotated Code of Maryland, require MTA, when using audio recording devices on board transit vehicles operated by or under contract to it, to obtain the consent of passengers and employees before recording their conversations?

3. If the answer to Question 2, above is in the affirmative, through what means can consent be obtained, e.g. can MTA obtain passengers’ and employees’ consent by posting signage on board its vehicles containing words such as, “This car (or bus) is subject to video and audio surveillance?”

Now I am no expert on Maryland state law in this area. But I am an expert at being an American citizen living in a society where I don’t expect the government to be recording my every word. And from that perspective, I find the MTA letter alarming. The fact that a state agency wants to record passenger conversations – and is even asking if there’s a way to do it without our consent – makes my blood run cold.

Yes, it may help the government detect or prevent crimes. Who knows, it might even stop a terrorist. But that is not the only issue. If it were, we would not need the Bill of Rights. Putting limits on government power has always meant that not every crime will be stopped, and not every guilty person will be punished. That is the price of liberty.

Of course, the Attorney General can only address whether the MTA can record passenger conversations. Whether the MTA should do this is a matter for our elected officials in Annapolis to address.